A raging torrent of muddy water swept past Tuscaloosa, completely submerging three closely spaced locks and dams. In the previous 32 hours, eight inches of rain had fallen and added to the already swollen river. University of Alabama President W. S. Wyman wrote that, “On April 16 there occurred the highest and most violent flood on the Black Warrior River ever known.” Fortunately, most of the city at that time sat safely above the water, and no lives were lost. There were other great floods, such as those of 1874, 1892, and 1979, but the spring flood of 1900 topped them all.
The Black Warrior is a major river in Central and West Alabama. It flows into the Tombigbee at Demopolis and extends through Tuscaloosa and into Jefferson County, where it branches into the Sipsey, Mulberry, and Locust Forks. It is 169 river miles in length, with a drainage basin that includes parts of 15 counties. In the Tuscaloosa area, North River and Hurricane Creek are major tributaries.
In the past, some considered it to be two separate rivers—the Black Warrior upstream from Tuscaloosa and the Warrior downstream. It has been said this was an attempt to increase spending for improvements, since Congress once appropriated funds on a per river basis. However, from the point of view of “fluvial geomorphology,” the science of how streams shape and are shaped by their surroundings, it could indeed be considered two rivers.
Above Tuscaloosa, the Black Warrior flows through the Appalachian Plateau. For countless millennia, the river has slowly cut through layers of bedrock to create a stable channel with a relatively narrow floodplain. In many areas, it is lined with cliffs and bluffs. Before navigation locks were built, there were numerous shoals and waterfalls.
Below Tuscaloosa lies the Coastal Plain, an area of little if any erosion resistant bedrock. There the river has created a broad flat floodplain. Like a slow-moving snake, the channel constantly changes position or meanders, eroding the outside of bends, while on the inside depositing sandbars that eventually become riverbanks. When bends expand too far, the river reroutes on a shorter path leaving channel remnants that become oxbow lakes and, eventually, swamps. Locally some of these include Snag, Moon, and Big Lakes near Fosters and Touson, Keaton, and Hull Lakes near Moundville. As oxbows slowly silt up they support cypress, tupelo gum, and other rooted vegetation, creating features such as Moody and Englewood Swamps.
For most of the 19th century, Tuscaloosa was the head of navigation. Beginning in the 1890s, 11 locks were eventually built, making the entire Black Warrior navigable. All but one were built with locally quarried Pottsville sandstone. These structures were known as Locks 7 through 17. By the second half of the 20th century, the original locks were replaced with four high-lift locks, three located in Tuscaloosa County.
Despite extensive modification, the Black Warrior and its tributaries are still home to a great variety of aquatic life. Recently, at least 130 species of fish have been documented, as well as 36 species of freshwater mussels (three times that found in all of Europe). It has been conjectured that these large numbers are due to a variety of habitats, long term geological stability, and a lack of glaciers during the Ice Ages.
Central and West Alabama receive about 50 inches of rainfall annually, resulting in an average runoff of about a million gallons per day per square mile of watershed. As a result, the average flow in the Black Warrior at Tuscaloosa is almost 8000 cubic feet per second, or about five billion gallons per day, more than enough for operating the locks and dams, generating power at three hydroelectric plants, and a number of other uses.
For thousands of years, people from ancient Native Americans to today’s population have utilized the Black Warrior River. The river and its tributaries continue to serve as wildlife habitat while providing water, transportation, food, recreation, and power for more than a million people—almost a quarter of all Alabamians.