Many of the raw materials that support manufacturing throughout the U.S. travel on the Tennessee River via barge. Over 50 million tons of goods move up and down the river every year.
Anything that’s transported in bulk quantities—especially the raw ingredients that go into many consumer products—makes a good candidate for shipping by barge. This includes coal, chemicals, grains, ores, minerals and aggregates such as sand, gravel and slag.
Water transportation is the only practical method for shipping extremely large and bulky pieces of machinery or equipment. Items as varied as giant cranes for highway bridge construction, steam generators for TVA power plants, automobile plant presses, military vehicles and even rocket boosters have been loaded onto barges for shipping via the Tennessee River.
The Tennessee River provides the least expensive form of transportation for dozens of Valley industries that either produce or use raw materials. For example, commercial navigation makes it possible for east Tennessee to be a major distribution center for fertilizer, road salt and asphalt that moves upriver by barge. Zinc mines in Jefferson County, Tenn., depend heavily on barge transportation to deliver zinc concentrate to customers downriver.
Major commodities shipped on the north Alabama segment of the river include inbound coal, grains, scrap iron and petroleum products; commodities shipped from this area include chemicals and rolls of flattened steel. North Alabama’s poultry industry owes its existence in large part to the availability of feed grains that can be transported cheaply by barge from the upper Midwest.
The West Tennessee and western Kentucky segment of the Tennessee River (the 215-mile stretch between the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Ohio River) is the busiest section of the river. Here Tennessee River traffic is joined by traffic that is passing through from the Cumberland, Ohio, or upper Mississippi rivers destined for Alabama waterways or the Gulf of Mexico, or vice versa. All types of waterborne commodities move on this section, often in large tows up to 15 barges and over a half-mile long. Commodities originating or terminating on the lower reach of the Tennessee River include sand and gravel, coal, chemicals, petroleum and ores and minerals.