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Transportation and Alabama Rivers

When Alabama's founding fathers designed the state's great seal they drew in what most agreed was the state's most important feature—its rivers. This only confirmed what Native Americans could have told them long before Europeans settled along the streams. The Indians fished the waters, planted crops in the flood plains, traded along the streams, and built villages at key locations where trails crossed the rivers.

These crossings became the focus of European attention and soon English, French, and Spanish traders from Charleston, Mobile, Pensacola, and Natchez came into the river region and built outposts on the streams. After the Revolution, Americans (mostly Georgians) also came to trade, and confrontations between white and red men were frequent. Ultimately the Indians were pushed back, and settlers arrived. Those with money and connections bought river bottom land in the big bend of the Tennessee River and along the Alabama and Tombigbee in the Black Belt. There they grew cotton, which they floated down to Mobile or over to the Mississippi and south to New Orleans. Each of Alabama's capitals—St. Stephens, Huntsville, Cahaba, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery—was a river town, a clear indication of the importance of streams.

The significance of the rivers increased with the arrival of the steamboat in the 1820s. Now commerce could travel both upstream and down, and soon this two-way traffic made inland towns rich and prosperous. Blessed with more miles of navigable waterways than any state in the union, Alabama relied on her rivers and the streams served her well.

Unfortunately, citizens of the state did not treat the rivers as the rivers treated them. Land along the streams was cleared to grow crops, and with each rain soil washed away. The runoff discolored the rivers, the silt drove away fish, and the streams began to change.

During and after the Civil War railroads began to compete with steamboats for passengers and cargo, and though the boats held their own for the rest of the nineteenth century, it was a losing battle. Travel by rail was faster and more dependable. Steamboats still carried tons of cotton, but when the boll weevil arrived and began destroying the crop the days of river commerce were numbered.

Meanwhile Alabamians were finding other uses for the rivers. Early in the century the Alabama Power Company began building hydroelectric dams on the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers. These giant structures brought electricity to thousands of Alabamians and transformed the state's economy, but at the same time they turned hundreds of miles of rushing water into acres of lakes. Whole species of river life died out, but in their place new species arrived. At the same time the lakes became holding ponds for pollution that came from factories, towns, and cities. One of the greatest problems facing Alabama today is how to keep the lakes clean.

Despite all the emphasis on hydroelectric development, navigation was not forgotten. During the second half of the twentieth century dams with locks were built on the lower Alabama and Tombigbee, and the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was completed. These accomplishments, along with the navigation improvements on the Black Warrior, give Alabama some 1,438 miles of navigable channels, still the most in the nation.

Our wonderful water resources are not safe, however. Industrial and municipal pollution continues to threaten many of our streams, and agricultural runoff remains a major problem. As our population grows, the demand for safe, clean water for drinking and recreation will grow as well. Keeping our rivers both clear and productive will be a major challenge in the twenty-first century.