Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Life on the Tombigbee: Floods and Dry Floods

The Tombigbee River begins in the wild northern regions of Itawamba County and flows south all the way to the Alabama River and then on to Mobile, Alabama. Since the founding of Itawamba County in 1836 the river has been an important part of the lives and livelihood of many. Tons of Itawamba hill country cotton have been shipped downriver that ended up finally at the port of Mobile.

The river bottom lands have been some of the most productive lands in Mississippi’s hill country for generations, but with cultivating these productive rich lands comes a price - that of the flood.

Tombigbee floods have been mentioned in historical accounts in Itawamba County since the 1830s. Josiah Hinds, who kept a journal during the beginning days of the county wrote of those floods, mentioning riding his horse through miles of flood waters in the Tombigbee bottomlands to reach Fulton, the county seat, from his plantation west of the river.

One quite rare occurrence I’ve heard talked about from my childhood days was the “dry flood.” A dry flood was, when upriver, a heavy thunderstorm would produce torrential rains, but downriver there would be no rain – as a matter of fact, the scorching Mississippi summer sun would be shining. My grandfather along with my father as a young boy, farmed the rich river bottomlands and I have heard them mention the “dry flood” on several occasions. My dad said the sun would be shining where they were tilling the soil but off in the distance to the north, many miles away, they could see the lightening from a storm and in the back of their minds knew they could stand a chance of being caught in a dry flood if they toiled in the fields too much longer. On one account he said they were plowing the fields and the water starting rising over the river banks. They quickly unhitched their mules, but before they could get out of the Tombigbee bottom land, water was already nearly waist high.

When I was a kid, river floods were quite common. During 1955, the spring river flood tore the Fulton levee apart at the foot of River Hill west of the river channel. For weeks, folks who lived on the west side of the river had to take a boat to their jobs in Fulton. During the early 1960s I recall the part of Fulton under the hill was bad to flood. Just north of Fulton, Cummings Creek emptied into the Tombigbee. When Cummings Creek and the Tombigbee flooded, it created massive amounts of water along Main Street under the hill. I remember once, the Ford dealership having to move all their new automobiles from the flood waters to dry ground uptown. That whole part of town would be flooded including the McKee Tourist Court motel, other businesses and the Bell home (pictured above).

I have not heard a dry flood mentioned in years and Tombigbee floods in Itawamba County today are not as severe as they once were, thanks in part, to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway being cut through the county east of the river. Now all the tributaries east of the river empty into the waterway rather than the old river channel.

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