Taking a long walk along the Tennessee River this week, I realized again how beautiful it is and how grateful I am that it flows right through Knoxville, my hometown city. I think sometimes we forget to notice the beauty of our rivers and forget to realize how they bless us. Rivers carry needed water and nutrients all over the earth and provide homes for fish and other wildlife. Rivers are highways for transportation and joyous places for recreation, boating, fishing, and water play. Rivers can teach us lessons, too, and I love those “Advice From a River” posters and signs that counsel us to slow down, flow more naturally and freely through our days, stay current and constant, and not let obstacles stop our goals or journey.
Deciding to write my blog about the Tennessee River, I looked up rivers in general to see how many are in the world. Most sources cited tens of thousands, stating the exact number is not actually known. In the United States, though, there are 250,000 rivers and the Tennessee is one of the three largest and longest rivers in the state, along with the Mississippi and the Cumberland. The Tennessee River’s name originally came from the Tanasi Cherokee Indian Village often spelled in earlier times more like the spelling of Tennessee, as in Tinassee and Tennassee. On an old 1755 British map the river is even termed “River of the Cherokees.” The Tennessee River long ago could only be navigated by flatboats, due to shoals, rapids, and shallow areas. Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama was especially treacherous.
On the little bulletin board map here you can see that the Tennessee River travels in a winding U-Shape from East Tennessee into Alabama, and then north across Middle Tennessee and into Kentucky. The river begins a mile above Knoxville at the Forks of the River where the Holston River and French Broad River converge. Early records note the Tennessee River’s beginning point at different places, one as far east as Kingsport, but in 1890 a federal law fixed the start of the river at its current location at Knoxville. You can see on the map how the Tennessee River squiggles almost into Georgia, Mississippi and even Ohio on its route before it finishes its U-Shaped journey.
I began hearing and learning about rivers earlier in life than many because my father was an engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey, Ground and Surface Water division. Part of his job when I was a girl was traveling into the field to collect data and take measurements of the rivers and larger streams around our area. His division of the USGS monitored and accessed ground and surface water at different seasons, and in particular weather conditions like in storms and droughts. I remember lessons Dad often taught me about stream flow and patterns, rivers, wells and ponds, and concerns with flooding, erosion, and pollution. He shared a lot of interesting stories, too, about water in caves, hidden underground streams, boat and barge wrecks, destructive floods, fatal drownings, and angry land and water disputes. When we traveled around the East Tennessee area, he often detoured off our main route to show us gage stations and spots where cable lines spanned the river. Dad would ride part way across the river to measure stream flow in a metal box running along the cable line. In inclement storms this was a dicey affair!
Since Dad was concerned, also, with dams and lakes, I also heard many stories about the construction of the dams on the Tennessee River and its tributary basins. On many trips we stopped to see different dams, exploring or taking tours. Nine main dams were built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on the Tennessee or its impounded lakes, including familiar ones near our home like Norris Dam, Douglas Dam, Fort Loudon Dam, and Fontana Dam. When J.L. and I traveled on vacations after we married and while working on our Tennessee state parks guidebook, we visited other dams and sites along the Tennessee River, like Pickwick Dam and Guntersville Dam in Alabama. The Wilson Dam near Scottsville, Alabama, was built between 1918 and 1924 before TVA was established in the 1930s, to free up navigation and commerce problems in that area and provide hydroelectric energy. A huge dam, at 5,451 ft across and 137 ft high, Wilson Dam can really pump out the power! The first dam TVA built was Norris Dam on the Clinch River to control flooding in the Tennessee Valley. It opened in 1936 and the photo above is one we took at the dam when visiting not long ago.
In early days in Tennessee, with slow and limited land transportation, towns and cities grew up close to the river—like Knoxville did. I always enjoy visiting the historic spots along the Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville like the James White Fort and Blount Mansion. Later recreational parks grew up along the rivers, too. Several in Knoxville near my home are Lakeshore Park, and the Carl Cowan and Concord parks. Downtown in the city is the Volunteer Landing Park and on the south side of the river is the 315-acre Ijams Nature Park, a lovely park to explore, and further east in the Forks of the River area is the new Seven Islands State Birding Park. We love walks at these parks and looking out over the Tennessee River at each one.
When growing up, my family traveled from South Knoxville across the Henley Street Bridge over the Tennessee to get downtown or to travel to north, west, or east Knoxville. To me, as a child, that bridge seemed huge whenever we crossed it. Sometimes when I pushed to do something my friends did that Mom knew unwise, a favorite phrase of hers was: “If your friends jumped off the Henley Street Bridge, would you do it, too?” The idea was that just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you should. But I often thought about that, driving over that bridge, as it was a spot where suicides did occur—and where people often did jump off the Henley Street Bridge. Although there have been some suicides off that bridge, most deaths on the Tennessee River are from drowning accidents, while swimming or boating. I think we often forget that water, although beautiful, is also dangerous.
To close on a happier note, a number of songs have been written about the Tennessee River like the classic Country song “Tennessee River” sung by Alabama. As a Bluegrass lover, I also like the lively number by The Bluegrass Situation called “She Took the Tennessee River. ” Another is Darryl Worley’s Country song “Tennessee River Run” and a little known song is “Tennessee River Runs Low” by The Secret Sisters. The sisters, Laura and Lydia Rogers, sang that if they could be a river they’d want to be the Tennessee! So would I! … Hope you enjoyed the pictures I snapped and the memories of the beautiful Tennessee! Be sure to get out to enjoy some times on the rivers near your home now that warm weather is here.
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.