In the mid 1700's Sieur de Bienville, founder of Mobile, recommended to Louis XIV, a waterway connecting the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee River. Later, American settlers also recognized the advantages of such a shortcut. Residents of Knox County, Tennessee (Knoxville) first approached Congress in 1810 with the proposal to connect the two rivers.
The first survey was made by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1827. Serious consideration was delayed for more than 100 years because of the expansion of railroads.
Construction of the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway was started in 1972 and completed in 1985. The waterway provides shallow draft boats and barges operating in some 16,000 miles of other navigable inland waterways with access to the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile, Alabama, 412 river miles to the south of the Bay Springs Lock and Dam. The junction of the waterway with the Tennessee River is 47 river miles north of the lock and dam.
The locks on the waterway are standard dimensions—110 feet wide and 600 feet long. This length permits an eight-barge tow (three wide and three long) with towboat to lock through without breaking the tow.
The Bay Springs Lock and Dam has an 84-foot lift at normal pool (the water level above the lock and dam) elevation 414. A lock-through of average lift uses approximately 42,000,000 gallons of water to fill, and fills or empties in about 12-14 minutes.
Commodities shipped on the waterway include ores, chemicals, farm products, paper and pulp, minerals and primary metals, coal, and staples for manufacture and export.
Water impoundments such as Bay Springs Lake above the lock and dam provide recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat.