The river that shaped our city has a long and fascinating history
“I was born across the river in the mountains where I call home.
Lord, times were good there. don’t know why I ever roamed.
Oh, Tennessee River and a mountain man, we get together anytime we can.
Oh, Tennessee River and a mountain man, we play together in mother nature’s band.”
— Alabama, “Tennessee River”
Before there were roads, cars or even railways, people traveled by the only natural means available: waterways. The many rivers located in the country are what early settlers and explorers used to reach across the vast expanses. Today, one of the greater modern uses of rivers is hydroelectric energy. The incredible power of water is harnessed through an elaborate system of dams, locks, and passageways that take advantage of this abundant resource. Commerce like barge traffic and recreation make up a large part of waterway use also.
The Tennessee River was at one time called the Cherokee River, among other names. Named after the native tribe of Cherokee who lived along its borders whose land it flowed through in eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama. The name Tennessee is derived from the Cherokee village named: Tanasi.
The Tennessee River is approximately 652 miles long and is the largest tributary of the Ohio River. A tributary is a stream or river that flows into a larger stream, parent river, or lake. The river begins in Knoxville with the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers. Its course moves southwest through east Tennessee and into Chattanooga. From here it loops through Northern Alabama and then from Guntersville flows northwest back into Tennessee. Here the river forms two of the Grand Divisions of our state: Middle and West Tennessee.
It’s hard not to think of Chattanooga without recognizing the fact that it is a river town. The humble beginnings of our beautiful city started just off the riverbank downtown at what is today known as: Ross’s Landing. Which in fact is the original name of Chattanooga.
In 1816 John Ross established a trading post just North of Chattanooga Creek and it became known as “Ross’s Warehouse.” At this time river trading posts like this were a key aspect in the sustenance of new immigrants migrating throughout the land. This along with: trade of goods and supplies and the news of current events were relayed back and forth in a time before newspapers existed.
It was also known by river goers that this particular stretch of river had the best conditions for a river flatboat crossing. Thus, it was also called “Ross’s Ferry.” Yes, John Ross, who would later become the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation also operated a swing ferry that went across the river and was anchored on today’s Maclellan Island.
Eventually, the term “Ross’s Landing” stuck and in 1974 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, thousands of people venture down to the riverbanks and enjoy the multi-million-dollar Ross’s Landing Riverfront Park for all kinds of various aquatic and leisurely activities.
On the official seal of the great state of Tennessee, it has two distinct images. The top is agriculture, representing the agrarian society of farming from which the state grew. The bottom image is commerce and shows a flat-bottomed-riverboat. Farming and the rivers were such a big part in the forming of the state that they were used as the representative icons for Tennessee’s seal. How else could one get the goods to and fro? By river, no doubt!
Where would we be without the Tennessee Valley Authority? Answer: in a swamp! A picture of Chattanooga a hundred years ago plainly shows much of it submerged in a broad flood plain. TVA is a federally owned corporation of the United States government that was created by congressional charter in 1933. The goal was to provide navigation, flood control, electrical generation, and economic development for the depression-stricken Tennessee Valley. It was the first large regional planning agency of the federal government, and remains the largest to this day.
Here in Chattanooga, the Chickamauga Dam is one of nine TVA dams that is a concrete hydroelectric facility with a generating capacity of 119 megawatts. 5,800 feet long and 129 feet high, the dam impounds the over 36,000-acre Chickamauga Lake that feeds into Nickajack Lake. The river, along with the dam system, helps generate power for thousands of residents in and around their surrounding areas. Chickamauga Dam’s name is derived from the Chickamauga Cherokee who also referred to themselves as the Chicomogie. Construction began on January 13, 1936 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicating the dam in 1939. Completion was on January 15, 1940 at a cost of over $42 million dollars, more than half a billion dollars in today’s money.
Recreational areas like Booker T. Washington and Harrison Bay State Park were developed by the creation of the Chickamauga reservoir and are enjoyed yearly by many local and out-of-state visitors. One can camp, fish, boat and swim. You name it; the parks are a great place for fun during the hot summer days here in the south.
Today, the most current event surrounding the dam is the upgrade to the navigation lock. The long-term goal is to take the one barge capacity lock and upgrade it to handle six barges simultaneously. Measuring 60 wide by 360 feet long, the lock allows recreational boats and river barges to travel past the dam by raising or lowering the water level 53 feet so vessels may pass from one reservoir to another. Having went through the lock before, it is quite an experience. The massive gear system that powers the lock can be viewed at the base of the dam.
The lock rebuild project was originally funded through the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which also finances the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who work on river navigation infrastructure. That fund ran out and new funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 added another $52 million dollars to the project. Another $37 million dollars was added to the project by a Senate panel on April 13 for next year.
Recently work resumed after four years of dormancy. Local U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), has been instrumental in helping to keep alive this vital upgrade to the river navigational system.
In a statement from the work resumption ceremony on April 25, Congressman Fleischmann said, “This is the restart of the new Chickamauga Lock. We are not only going to begin the reopening, the rebuilding of the great new lock, we are going to have a renaissance in America. And that renaissance and rebirth is going to be a ‘can do’ attitude. It will show our citizens what we can do when we come together with the right goals, with the right hearts, with optimism to get things done.”
The newly appropriated $3.1 million dollars have restarted the project. Even after this amount it will still require over $600 million to complete the project. The total projected cost of the project is a whopping $858 million dollars!
The lock is crumbling and maintenance is constant. Over time, chemical reactions due to “concrete growth” are the main cause of deterioration from the cement and rock aggregate in the walls. Funding for a complete replacement lock have been proposed but have been overridden by other larger major projects in Ohio and Pennsylvania waterways. These projects rank higher in priority because of their larger numbers of barge traffic that use the facilities.
All along the banks of the river people use the water. Boat marinas abound, as boaters and personal watercraft need an ever-constant supply of fuel and food while enjoying a relaxing weekend on the lake. The city of Chattanooga has been very keen to take advantage of the river by hosting the annual Riverbend Festival, under the local direction of the non-profit Friends of the Festival group. Famous acts and soon-to-be-famous local bands come and entertain the masses in one of the many floating stages used for the festivities. Every year it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Annual events like this continue to put Chattanooga and our part of the river on the map for the entire nation to see.
The Chattanooga River Boat Company, located at Pier 2 on the Riverfront downtown, features the Southern Belle riverboat. Located between the Oligiati and Market Street bridges, the Southern Belle cruises the river daily offering sightseeing and lunch tours with live narration of the river from the captain’s pilothouse. At night you can enjoy a sunset or dinner cruise with music, dancing, and an excellent dinner to compliment your river experience.
Back at the dock; check out the 3rd Deck Burger Bar. It sits 40 feet above the water and has an outside patio and indoor leather couch seating. So, sit back, relax and watch all the various boats and barges go by while you sip on a cool beverage. You can also customize your own creation from the exclusive: build your own sandwich menu. Choose from Black Angus, chicken or veggie. Let your cares float down the river!
Some of the few negative things about the river would have to be: pollution. Where does pollution of the water come from? People. It is a careless act for boaters to throw out garbage, cigarettes, beer cans/bottles etc. and expect it to just go away with the current. It does not.
Mercury levels from industrial pollution are so bad that the fish are not safe too consume. If that is true, then how good do you think it is for the fish? People still fish the waters, but I hope for their sakes they are not eating the fish!
Back in the ‘60s, TVA detected a non-indigenous water plant in the river called milfoil. They tried to eradicate it with chemicals and by lowering the water levels. It was all to no avail. If you use the river, you know what I’m talking about. Thanks to this invasive water plant that more than likely comes from Australia, boat props and motors now get clogged and feet get tangled when trying to swim. I miss the days before milfoil took over the lake.
A legal bone of contention over the years has been the state of Georgia’s pursuit of a boundary change with Tennessee in Marion County. They hope to get part of the river for their states water deficiencies. Yes, a lot of the water we drink still comes from the Tennessee River. Georgia, having suffered from extensive drought for many years along with uncontrolled growth in the metropolitan region surrounding Atlanta, has been looking for ways to curb their shortfall. So far, it has not gone the way in which they would like. Tennessee is still Tennessee, like it has been since 1796.
We as people have a solemn duty to protect the water and also to cherish this vital life-sustaining element. Truly, we are blessed to have in our midst such a valuable and enviable resource. A true… river of life.
Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.