Dynamic River Roads

During the early years of cotton production in the Black Belt, flat botton boats, each carrying up to 100 bales of cotton, floated downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, powered by the current. Often after a downstream trip, these boats were dismantled and the lunber sold, leaving the crew to walk home.

Soon, steamboats appared, able to ferry people and supplies both up and down the rivers. In October 1821, the Harriet became the first steamboat to travel up the Alabama River as far as Montgomery. In December of that year, the steamboat Cotton Plant arrived in Tuscaloosa via the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers. Soon, steamboats were a regular feature of the rivers, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the once tranquil waterways swarmed with commerical traffic.

By the late 1850s, 233 steamboats operated in Alabama, able to carry as many as a thousand bales of cotton. The Tombigbee River had about 300 landings, about the majority of these boats worked the 200 landings on the Alabama River. Still, these boats could not always reach the most productive cotton-growing communities when the rivers were low, so large cotton warehouses began to appear on the river bluffs, especially in places like Cahawba, Claiborne, Selma, Montgomery, and Demopolis where inland cotton could be stored until rains caused the rivers to rise.

Since planters had begun to move out of the river bottoms and onto the vast inland Black Belt prairies, where roads were difficult to maintain, railroads were constructed to transport inland cotton to the warehouses. In time, the rivers began to show the effects of intensive agriculture in the Black Belt. By the Civil War, any land that could grow cotton was clear cut all the way down to the water's edge. Consequently, in the spring, rain eroded the bare, shallow topsoil. The runoff, heavy with soil, flowed into the creeks and rivers rather than being absorbed by praire grasses and forest trees. The rivers in turn, overflow their banks in devastating and destructive ways.

Towns such as Cahawba, home to many of the South's wealthiest planters and their enslaved laborers, and a place that had been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans, has to be abandoned in 1866 due to the increased severity of recurring floods. Silt clogges the river channels, hindering navigation, and altering the ecology of the rivers.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, waterways were dredged and dammed to improve navigation, to produce hyproelectric power, and to create reservoirs for recreation. The Alabama and Tombigbee rivers were transformed from free-flowing rivers into a series of lakes. Locks were constructed to make navigation possible year-round, but increasingly, these rivers were being seen as sources of power rather than commerical arteries.

In 1984, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the largest earthmoving projects in U.S. history, was completed, allowing goods from the heartland of the United States to be sent through Alabama to the port of Mobile. Today, the rivers of the Black Belt offer a wide variety of experiences, from hard working barges on the Tombigbee waterway, to bass boating and jet skiing on the new Alabama Scenic River Trail, to quiet canoe and kayak trips down the wild, free-flowing Cahaba River.