Substantial trade towns and cities - Cahawba, Claiborne, Selma, Camden, and Demopolis - sprang up along the riverbanks to facilitate the shipping of Black Belt cotton through the port city of Mobile to supply the increasingly wealthy planters with incoming goods and services. During the early years, flat bottom boats, each carrying up to 100 bales of cotton, plied the waterways, but upstream travel was very difficult. Often after a downstream trip, these boats were dismantled and the lumber sold in Mobile, leaving the crew to walk home. Soon however, steamboats appeared, and were able to ferry people and supplies both up and down the rivers. The first steamboat built in Alabama for state waters was constructed in St. Stephens in 1818, but its engines were not strong enough to push it very far upstream. It was not until October of 1821, that the Harriet became the first steamboat to travel up the Alabama River as far as Montgomery, and in December of 1821, 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 commercial traffic. By the late 1850s, there were 233 steamboats operating in Alabama, and some were able to carry as many as a thousand bales of cotton. The Tombigbee River had about 300 landings, but 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.
As time marched on, the rivers began to respond to the new ways of working and living in the Black Belt. By the Civil War, any land that could grow cotton was clear cut. Fields ran all the way down to the waterâ€™s edge. Consequently, in the spring, the bare shallow topsoil of the Black Belt soaked in what rain it could without its tall grass and trees, and then began to erode. The runoff, heavy with soil, flowed into the creeks and rivers, and the rivers in turn, unable to hold the silt, began to overflow their banks in the most devastating and destructive ways. Towns such as Cahawba, home to many of the Southâ€™s wealthiest planters and their enslaved laborers, and a place that had been occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans, had to be abandoned in 1866 due to the increased severity of recurring floods. Silt also began to clog 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 hydroelectric 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 commercial arteries. The boll weevil, depleted soil, and expanding railway lines had made cotton transporting steamboats obsolete. In 1984, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the largest earthmoving project in U.S. history, was completed, and allows 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.