Next month marks the opening of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Transportation Museum in Columbus.
The museum takes up only a fraction of a one-story brick building at 318 Seventh St., but the small space is full of information about the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Exhibits both informational and interactive cover everything from the history of transportation in the region, to information about the locks. Quotes about rivers made famous by Mark Twain adorn the walls. From the ceiling hang flags representing barge and towing companies which use the waterway. There are models of boats and a train, framed newspaper articles about the waterway and informational videos about different modes of transportation in the region.
Visitors can page through scrapbooks containing photos from when the waterway was in development. There are buttons to press, wheels to turn, videos to watch.
The museum’s highlight occurs in a small room set up as the pilot house of the Huck Finn towboat. There, an interactive video invites visitors to be part of the boat’s crew. The boat’s pilot narrates the video, explaining the work and life of a crew member. He also shows visitors the instruments and what they do. He groans when a message comes over the radio: “We have some fog coming in from the west! Repeat, fog coming in from the west!”
“Fog is a towboat’s worst enemy,” the pilot tells the audience grimly.
This video and other interactive exhibits are designed with young children in mind. According to the museum’s executive director, Agnes Zaiontz, the museum fits with education programs already in schools.
“We’re teaching intermodal transportation in schools,” she said. “And we have a textbook, we have written lesson plans, and the teachers are teaching it…so they can bring their children on a field trip up here and see what the textbooks are talking about.”
Zaiontz added that more exhibits are to come, including a 27 foot by 9 foot map of the entire Tenn-Tom Waterway, from Pickwick to Demopolis, Alabama.
Mike Tagert, transportation commissioner for Mississippi’s northern district, said he hoped the museum would spark interest in transportation careers among elementary school children.
“We have a nationally recognized educational outreach program to develop that interest…but it’s always been focused on the traditional modes of road and bridge work,” Tagert said, adding that this museum expands the program’s focus to waterborne transportation.
“[The museum] really educates kids locally about an asset that is very unique to their community that they may take for granted,” he added.
According to Don Waldon, this week marks 30 years since the journey of the first inaugural towboat on the Tenn-Tom Waterway. The actual dedication of the waterway occurred on June 1, 1985, several months after watercraft had already been using the Tenn-Tom. Waldon, who had been Administrator of the Waterway Authority at that time, said the dedication saw what was probably the largest delegation of Congressmen and senators that had ever been in the state. Thousands of people, both local and from out-of-town, attended the dedication.
“It was one of the hottest days on record,” Waldon remembered. “It was a miserable day but a lot of people showed up.”
Waldon talked about the opposition the waterway faced from the Carter Administration in the late 1970s.
“One of the first things (Carter) did was start identifying projects that he felt…should be stopped,” said Waldon. “A couple dozen of those ended up being on what was commonly referred to as the Carter Hitlist, and the Tennessee-Tombigbee was one of those projects.”
A hearing was convened in Columbus to determine whether the project had support from the public and of it should be scrapped. According to Waldon, about 6000 people went to the hearing in support of the waterway. The then-governor of Mississippi led a “hard hat parade” down College Street. The Carter administration approved the waterway.
Zaiontz said the museum was paid for mostly by private companies and individuals. According to Tagert, the Federal Highway Administration also provided a small grant to go toward the building of the museum.
The dedication of the Tenn-Tom Transportation Museum will be Friday, Feb. 6. After the dedication, visitors can make appointments to tour the museum.