Cumberland River History – Quimby's Cruising Guide

Cumberland River History

The navigable portion of the Cumberland River, from its mouth at the Ohio River to Celina, Tenn., a distance of 381 miles, consists of four “lakes” formed by a series of dams: Barkley Dam at Mile 30.6, Cheatham Dam at Mile 148.7, Old Hickory Dam at Mile 216.2 and Cordell Hull Dam at Mile 313.5.

Barkley Dam impounds a lake of more than 93,000 acres with a shoreline of 1,400 miles at normal reservoir level. The lake lies in the gently rolling hills of southwestern Kentucky and north central Tennessee, and is nationally known for its exceptional fishing and duck hunting, as well as boating, water-skiing and swimming. The numerous private and Corps of Engineers recreation areas around Barkley and the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Land Between the Lakes (on the western shore) offer visitors many recreational opportunities. 

Below Barkley Dam, the Corps maintains a visitor center where you can see a simulation of the Nashville wharf in the mid-1800s, with displays of hides, cotton and other types of merchandise brought in by frontiersmen for trade. You can also see an authentic display of useful commodities transported into the valley by the steamboats and can observe a theater dramatization of changing lifestyles in the Tennessee-Kentucky towns along the Cumberland River.

Lake Barkley connects to Kentucky Lake by a canal. The canal provides an alternate route for traffic needing access between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers and the Ohio River. The canal also enables diversion of water flow between the two reservoirs, benefiting the public in times of heavy power use.

Cheatham Lake is located in an area of gently rolling hills and moderately mountainous terrain typical of middle Tennessee. It is a beautiful area interspersed with open fields and picturesque bluffs. The upper reaches of the reservoir meanders through the heart of Nashville, past the famous Opryland entertainment center and ends at the Old Hickory Dam.

History comes alive in a visit to Cheatham Lake and the surrounding area. The remains of Old Lock A, Harpeth Shoals, Eaton’s Station and an historic old fort are exciting reminders of the colorful past. There’s the reconstructed Fort Nashborough on the Cheatham shore in Nashville, built in 1770 by early settlers. A replica of the Greek Parthenon and historic homes are but a few of the many historic sites around Cheatham Lake and Nashville.

The Old Hickory Dam is approximately 3 miles upstream from Nashville. The rapidly growing city of Hendersonville is situated on the shoreline in the vicinity of the lock and dam. The reservoir extends about 97 miles upstream to Cordell Hull Dam and Cathage, Tenn.

Cordell Hull Lake is located in a beautiful wooded area interspersed with open fields and scenic bluffs above Gainesboro, Tenn. Remains of Fort Blount and the nearby town of Williamsburg are points of interest that may be seen by visitors to the lake, and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.