Tennessee River System
Coal barge "Donna Lee" on the Tennessee River at Savannah, 1946.

Tennessee River System

The Tennessee River system covers 41,000 square miles, draining portions of sixty Tennessee counties and seven states. The Tennessee River is the largest tributary to the Ohio River and is its equal in water volume. From its mouth at Paducah, Kentucky, to the Virginia headwaters of its own longest tributary, the Holston, the Tennessee travels 1,100 miles, falling two thousand feet in elevation along the way.

The Holston River is the largest tributary to the Tennessee and includes the Watauga River within its drainage. The French Broad River meets the Holston at Knoxville after gathering the waters of the Pigeon and Nolichucky rivers. The Little Tennessee River joins the Tennessee at Lenoir City, and the Clinch River enters at Kingston; the Clinch and Powell confluence is now found at Norris Lake. Below Decatur, the Hiwassee River brings its waters and those of the Ocoee River to the Tennessee, and above South Pittsburg is the mouth of the Sequatchie River. The Flint and Elk Rivers enter in the great bend of the Tennessee, which flows through Alabama and the northeast corner of Mississippi. As the Tennessee River flows north through its western Tennessee valley, the Duck River (fed by the Buffalo River) joins south of New Johnsonville, and the Big Sandy River joins near Paris Landing. Continuing its way across western Kentucky, the Tennessee joins the Ohio River approximately 12 miles west of the Cumberland River confluence and 30 miles east of the union of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The name of the Tennessee and the river’s origins have changed several times since Europeans first attempted to map its course. In the late 1600s, French maps showed the river as the “Caquinampo” or “Kasqui,” while early eighteenth-century maps used “Cussate,” “Hogohegee,” “Callamaco,” and “Acanseapi.” A British map of 1755 shows the Tennessee as the “River of the Cherakees,” the Little Tennessee as the “Tenassee or Satico,” and the Clinch as the “Pelisipi.” By the late 1700s, the main river was known as the Tennessee, and it was considered to begin at the mouth of the Little Tennessee. Through much of the 1800s, the confluence of the Clinch with the river was considered the start of the Tennessee. In 1889 the Tennessee General Assembly declared the upper limit of the Tennessee to be at Kingsport, but in 1890 a federal statute recognized the junction of the French Broad and Holston Rivers as the start of the Tennessee, a designation that still stands.

Although the Tennessee was one of the largest rivers east of the Mississippi, the presence of powerful Indian nations along its banks coupled with a number of significant navigational hazards prevented the river from becoming a major migration route for European settlers moving west. The terrors of the river as it cuts a 30-mile long gorge through Walden’s Ridge at Chattanooga are well dramatized in John Donelson’s account of the 1780 voyage down the river. Muscle Shoals in northern Alabama formed a series of obstructions nearly 40 miles in length, with rock reefs, gravel bars, rapids, log snags, and a shallow channel that caused boats to ground. The Chickasaws controlled the region of the shoals, and the Chickamaugas controlled the gorge. Until the early 1800s, these barriers left only the upper and lower Tennessee valleys open for settlement.

Commercial keelboats carrying goods and people traveled up river as far as Tuscumbia by the 1820s. In 1821 the first steamboat, the Osage, traveled from the Ohio River as far as Florence, Alabama. Using the spring’s high water, the Atlas reached Knoxville in 1828 and claimed a $640 prize as the first steamboat to reach that city. The steam lines divided service between Paducah-Florence and Chattanooga-Decatur, with limited service from Decatur to Knoxville, and regular through steam line service from Knoxville to the Ohio did not occur until 1890.

During the Civil War, the Tennessee River generally was seen as something to be crossed and was not widely used as a military route, although the Union army did transport some troops by water, chiefly in the western valley. The Confederate Fort Henry, built to guard the Tennessee River, fell in February 1862, and by April U.S. forces occupied the lower valley. Battles took place near the river–Shiloh, Chattanooga, Chickamauga, and Knoxville–but the objective remained the capture of railroads more than waterways.

Many river towns were damaged or destroyed during the war, and in March 1867 a flood from the upper valley to Paducah washed away houses, bridges, and submerged some towns. The postwar arrival of outside capital helped revive the iron and timber industries of the eastern Tennessee valley. John T. Wilder’s Rockwood iron works used the river to transfer material to Chattanooga, and the Scottish Carolina Timber and Land Company established operations on the Pigeon and French Broad Rivers.

In 1875 work began on a canal and dam system around Muscle Shoals and incorporated an 1837 canal built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Tuscumbia. Opening in 1890, it was the longest steamboat canal in the world; by that time, however, railroads largely had supplanted river commerce on the Tennessee. Steamboating declined sharply after 1916, and the canal ceased operation in 1918. Commercial steamers were gone by the 1930s when the age of dams arrived.

In 1900 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed a dam on the Tennessee River at Scotts Point below Chattanooga to provide hydroelectric power and conquer the gorge’s hazards. The site was moved to Hales Bar, and the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company began construction in 1905. The fearsome gorge was tamed in 1913 when the first boat locked through the dam. In 1916 a federal report recommended three dams to deal with Muscle Shoals, and the Corps of Engineers began construction of Wilson Dam near Florence in 1918. Wilson was completed in 1925, and the corps began construction of Wheeler Dam several miles upriver in 1933, the same year the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established.

The TVA took over the Wheeler project and other dams on the Tennessee system and initiated a massive building program. In its first ten years, the TVA completed nine dams, with Norris Dam the first to come on line in 1936. By 1944, a nine-foot-deep channel was available from Paducah to Knoxville, and that year the first modern towboat and barges arrived in Knoxville. Diesel-powered tows now dominated the river, transporting sand, gravel, coal, grain, and forest and petroleum products. The TVA continued its mission of flood control and power generation and in 1980 more than thirty dams existed on the Tennessee system.

Perhaps the last great change to the Tennessee River was the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, authorized by Congress in 1946. The “Tenn-Tom” was designed by the Corps of Engineers to connect the Tennessee River near Pickwick Landing by canal and Yellow Creek to the Tombigbee River in Mississippi. This route allowed barge traffic to reach Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The 232-mile waterway was begun in 1972 and completed in the 1980s.

In the mid- and late twentieth century, the Tennessee River system became as much the focus of recreation and environmental preservation as the focus of commerce and industry. Tourism dominated lake use, and TVA power generation shifted primarily to steam and nuclear-powered plants. Environmental activists, sportsmen, and archaeologists opposed new dam construction, losing the fight against the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River and prevailing against the Columbia Dam on the Duck River. The battle over paper plant pollution on the Pigeon River was as active in 1998 as it was in 1908, and a new battle had formed over chip mills and their use of the Tennessee. As the century ended, the purposes of the TVA as a public agency were under examination as officials considered the best ways to manage the Tennessee River system.

Suggested Reading

Donald Davidson, The Tennessee, 2 vols. (1946 and 1948)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Tennessee River System
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018