Cumberland River
Emil Bott's painting of the Cumberland River near Nashville, ca. 1855.

Cumberland River

From its headwaters in Lechter County, Kentucky, to its mouth at Smithland on the Ohio River, the Cumberland River travels almost 700 miles and drains a watershed of 18,000 square miles. Over 300 miles of the river flow through Tennessee, which contains 11,000 square miles of the watershed. Seven major tributary river systems to the Cumberland rise in Tennessee: the Obey-Wolf, Roaring, Caney Fork, Stones, Harpeth, and Red River systems, as well as the Big South Fork of the Cumberland, which enters at Burnside, Kentucky. All but the Red River enter from the south side of the Cumberland.

A portion of the upper reaches above Lake Cumberland in Kentucky is designated a wild river for its many rapids and shoals, and an additional 100,000 acres on the Big South Fork are a national river and recreation area. This section of the river from the 63-foot-tall Cumberland Falls to Burnside, Kentucky, is bounded by 300- to 500-foot-high cliffs of conglomerate and sandstone. Smith's Shoals were the biggest impediments to early navigation, in some places only six inches deep at low water. Burnside was the head of low-water steam navigation, 358 river miles above Nashville. At low water, sixteen shoals and bars impeded navigation on this stretch of the river. River width from Burnside to Carthage varied from 550 to 600 feet, and the valley from one-half to one mile wide. At Carthage, the valley widens south into the Central Basin until the river reenters the Highland Rim 14 miles below Nashville. Navigation on the Upper Cumberland could only occur during the wetter months of December through May, and during the “tide” some plucky captains took their steam packets as far up the twisting Caney Fork as Frank's Ferry in White County.

Navigable year round, the Lower Cumberland winds 192 miles from Nashville to Smithland. Flowing through the ridges and valleys of the highlands, the river bottom is generally a mile wide. Limestone bluffs limited the river to a width of 600 to 700 feet in its natural state. Before reaching the Ohio, the Cumberland enters the upheaved sandstone and coal of western Kentucky. At least ten major shoals obstructed the river, with the most serious the 4.3 mile length of rocky ledges and gravel bars of the Harpeth Shoals.

Human use of the river began toward the end of the last Ice Age, when hunters skirted the glacier-laden lands north of the Ohio River and entered the game-rich valleys of the Cumberland River system. Virtually every terrace along these streams bears the site of Native American occupation, from isolated Paleo-American hunting camps to great Mississippian towns. In the early 1700s the Shawnees attempted to establish their claim to the valley of the Cumberland, but they were banished by the Cherokees and Chickasaws to the Ohio country.

Although the French learned of the river in the 1670s, naming it Riviere des Chauouanons for the Shawnees, it was Dr. Thomas Walker who gave the river its permanent name. Traveling with a small party of explorers down Yellow Creek from the gap he named for William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, Walker came to a narrow river he also named Cumberland. For thirty years, long hunters visited the river seeking game and furs, and some major tributaries bear their names–Stones River for Uriah Stone, Obey River for Obediah Spencer–while minor streams also mark their passing. One is named for Ambrose Powell's dog Tumbler, killed by a bull elk at the stream's edge.

British army engineer Lieutenant Thomas Hutchins first charted the river in 1769 and referred to it as “Shawanoe.” In 1775 the river became a boundary for Richard Henderson's ambitious Transylvania Purchase. Hutchins's maps were not published in America until after the American Revolution, and John Donelson did not know the details of the maps when his party ascended the Cumberland during the last leg of the flatboats' rendezvous with James Robertson in 1780.

Over the next forty years the Cumberland region grew in population and agricultural wealth as keelboats and other craft ran produce such as tobacco and cotton from Nashville down to New Orleans. In the early 1800s sailing ships like the seventy-four-ton Concordia were built at Cairo in Sumner County, sailed downriver to New Orleans, and were sold for use in coastal and foreign commerce. In March 1819 the steamboat General Jackson arrived in Nashville. Nashvillians financed the construction of the steamboat and it was registered to the Port of Nashville. By 1828 boats were steaming up to the Caney Fork, and in 1833 the Jefferson reached Burnside, Kentucky.

In 1825 increasing steamboat trade led the Tennessee legislature to petition Congress for a survey of the Cumberland, which had become the main shipping path for Middle Tennessee produce. Between 1832 and 1838 Congress appropriated $155,000 for river improvements, viewing the potential production from coal fields of eastern Kentucky as justification for navigational improvements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began alterations that included clearing snags and constructing wing dams to deepen the channel. The improvement project ended, however, with the Panic of 1837 and did not resume until the 1870s.

The Cumberland River also was of strategic importance during the Civil War. Confederate Fort Donelson, constructed 50 miles from its mouth on the Ohio River, guarded the river approaches to Nashville. When the fort fell to U.S. troops in February 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Foote quickly brought that section of the river under Federal control. Union boats patrolled the river to Carthage throughout the Civil War, but Confederate guerrillas often threatened the stretch between Nashville and Clarksville. The Upper Cumberland proved hard to defend also, and Confederate troops often crossed between Hartsville and the state line to carry out raids in Kentucky. In 1865 peace brought a new boom to the river.

In the early 1870s timber became a major industry on the river. Hardwood logs from the Upper Cumberland forests were rough sawn into hundreds of thousands of board feet at mills scattered from Carthage to Kentucky. Assembled into rafts up to 100 by 30 by 8 feet in dimension, the timber was floated on high tide to Nashville and other markets for finishing. Cal Hamilton, an African American from Celina, became one of the most famous pilots of these rafts. Other famous rafters from Celina included Bob Riley of tall-tale fame.

In 1871 Colonel S. T. Abert surveyed the river for the Corps of Engineers. His work generated two estimates for navigational improvements. The more expensive proposal, and the one favored by the corps, called for the construction of thirty locks and dams for slack water navigation. The corps justified the expense as providing access to the great coal fields of Kentucky, the timber of the Upper Cumberland, and the iron of the Western Highland Rim below Nashville. In 1887 engineers designed the first lock and dam (No. 1) to be built on the Cumberland above Nashville, and canal construction began in 1888. In 1892 Congress authorized construction of Lock and Dam A at the Harpeth Shoals. By 1900 six stone or concrete and timber dams had been built below Nashville and eight above. In 1924 fifteen locks and dams raised the river to a minimum of 6 feet from Burnside to Smithland, but by that time traffic from steamboats and log rafts had diminished significantly. The last steamboat, Rowena, left the trade in 1933. Gasoline-powered towboats took over the river scene, while railroads handled much of the freight.

New uses of the Cumberland system included flood control and hydroelectric power. In 1923 the Cumberland Hydro-Electric Power Company applied to the Corps of Engineers for three dams in Kentucky. In 1926 the corps recommended three dams of its own between Carthage and Burnside; the great Cumberland floods of December 1926 and January 1927 lent urgency to the request.

By 1936, six Corps of Engineers reservoir sites were selected: Wolf Creek on the Upper Cumberland (completed 1952), Dale Hollow on the Obey (1948), Center Hill on the Caney Fork (1951), Stewarts Ferry (later Percy Priest, completed 1968) on the Stones River, Three Islands on the Harpeth, and Rossview on the Red River. The latter two were not constructed. In 1946 three more dams were authorized. Old Hickory, just above Nashville, was completed in 1956, and Cordell Hull at Carthage followed in 1973. A proposed dam at Celina was not built. Two later dams were designed and completed: Cheatham near Ashland City (1959) and Barkley in Western Kentucky (1966). By the 1970s eight dams controlled the river from Burnside to its confluence with the Ohio River.

At the end of the twentieth century, the Cumberland River continues to be used for the movement of coal, oil, and gravel, but recreation on Corps of Engineer-constructed lakes has become a major part of the river economy. Environmental groups such as the Cumberland Compact have emerged to focus attention on the river and its water quality. For the twenty-nine counties within the Cumberland system, the river remains a vital part of local identity.

Suggested Reading

Byrd Douglas, Steamboatin on the Cumberland (1961); Leland R. Johnson, Engineers of the Twin Rivers (1974); James McCague, The Cumberland (1973)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Cumberland River
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 16, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018