The impetus for improving the Black Warrior River to allow unhindered barge and steamer navigation was envisioned in the late 1800s. For some time the area between Tuscaloosa, upstream to the Sipsey Fork was known for the quality and thickness of its coal beds. Before the age of the railroad, the region floated coal downstream to markets in Mobile via wooden barges. It was a dangerous and sometimes life threatening endeavor, especially shooting the falls at Squaw Shoals. In 1886 the U.S. Army and their Board of Engineers began discussing a system of 5 locks and dams on a 15 mile segment between Tuscaloosa and Daniels Creek . By 1895 three were completed and the first commercial vessel to use them carried 40 tons of coal. Immediately coal prices in Tuscaloosa dropped 30 to 50%. These three original dams were first replaced by larger more modern dams and eventually covered by several feet of water with the completion of Oliver Lock and Dam completed in 1939. (Willis)
Before the construction of locks and dams on the Warrior, the river above Tuscaloosa was made up of a series of shoals that backed water up slightly forming 500 to 700 feet widths that were often called lakes. On either bank stood 100 to 200 foot high bluffs, slightly set back from the waters edge (100 to 500 feet) and had falls and rapids (low volume gorges) flowing into the Warrior. (Wood)
The rapids of the Warrior were as broad as 1,000 feet across and 1,000 feet in length and consisted of hard sandstone embedded with coal seams. (Wood)
This series of 12 shoals dropped 122 feet in approximately 47 miles. Squaw was 4.5 miles long and dropped 41 feet. (Mettee)
The two largest shoals were University or Tuscaloosa Shoals directly above Tuscaloosa and Squaw Shoals about 26 miles above Tuscaloosa. (Wood)
University Shoal dropped 30 feet in a two mile stretch and Squaw Shoals over 40 feet in 3 miles. The average water depth over these shoals was 2 feet and the river was often crossable by foot. (Wood)
1886 surveys were done to construct locks and dams allowing shipping year round (rather than only during wet months). 1888 construction began in Tuscaloosa.
The Black Warrior was the first river in the state to receive such navigational improvements.
By 1915 there were 8 locks on the Black Warrior extending navigation to the head of Squaw Shoals. By 1925, 17 locks and dams were in place and the channel was dug to 6 feet. By 1960, the 17 had been replaced with 6 larger dams and a depth of 9 feet.
Today four larger dams to increase navigation depth have replaced all of these original locks. Two of these (Holt and Bankhead) were equipped with Alabama Power turbines for generation of hydroelectric power.
During these years of establishing year-round navigation for barge traffic, the original environment of the Black Warrior River was essentially destroyed. Frequent dredging is still required to maintain the navigational depth of 9 feet. 20% of the combined Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway requires this maintenance dredging. (Metee)
The JOHN HOLLIS BANKHEAD LOCK AND DAM which forms BANKHEAD LAKE is the first impoundment (northernmost) structure on the mainstem of the Black Warrior and is located in the Northeast corner of Tuscaloosa County. The original lock, was built in 1915 and then replaced by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1963. This dam is the highest on the Black Warrior River. Alabama Power Company constructed and maintains a hydroelectric powerhouse below the lock which they built in 1963. Bankhead is one of two Corps owned dams fitted with an Alabama Power Company hydropower generating turbine.
Bankhead Lake is the largest of the mainstem Warrior impoundments, extending 65 miles in length into the Locust, Mulberry and Sipsey Forks and creating a total surface area of 9,200 acres. There are many private developments along the lake. Squaw shoals now flooded by Bankhead Lake possessed perhaps the world’s largest stand of shoal lillies. Along with its disappearance many species of fish and thirty species of mussels were lost from this stretch. (Corps & Lydeard)
HOLT LOCK AND DAM which forms HOLT LAKE was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1969, and like the Bankhead dam, is fitted with Alabama Power Company hydropower turbines on the right bank of the dam. The new dam inundated four older locks, some of which were removed to prevent navigation hazards during low water. (Wood)
Holt Lake extends upstream 19 miles to the John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam. It sits approximately 6 miles upstream of Tuscaloosa and 2 miles northwest of Holt. Holt Lake is the middle of three lakes on the Warrior between Tuscaloosa to the convergence of the Mulberry and Locust Fork Rivers (Bankhead sits above and Oliver below). The lake covers 3,200 acres and is a popular recreation attraction. (Corps)
WILLIAM BACON OLIVER LOCK AND DAM which forms LAKE OLIVER was the first modern improved dam to be built and covered the first three locks built on the Black Warrior. Completed in 1940 the dam is located in the city of Tuscaloosa. The original lock had been built in 1895.
This lake remains largely within the original river banks and extends 9 miles to Holt Lock and Dam. (Corps)
The ARMISTEAD I. SELDEN or WARRIOR LOCK AND DAM which forms WARRIOR LAKE is the last on the Warrior River and sits 6 miles southeast of Eutaw. This project is slightly unusual in that the dam allows a cut-off canal across the neck of a horshoe bend in the river. The canal leads barges to a separate lock about three-fourths of a mile southeast of the dam.
The Warrior Lake extends 77 miles to the William Bacon Oliver Lock and Dam in Tuscaloosa and has a surface area of 7,800 acres. Frequently used for water sports and recreational opportunities. The replacement structure was completed in 1962. (Corps)
LEWIS SMITH DAM which forms SMITH LAKE impounds the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River. The amazing quality of the water in this lake is due to its location downstream of the Bankhead National Forest which filters water flowing into Smith Lake. The lake impounds 21,000 acres.
The dam releases clear, cold water from the bottom of the lake. Because of these cold temperatures, the Sipsey Fork downstream of the dam can support introduced rainbow trout, making this section of water one of the only places in Alabama that can support a trout fishery.
Inland and Highland Lakes are impoundments on the Blackburn Fork of the Locust Fork River.