Tennessee River History – Quimby's Cruising Guide

Tennessee River History

The Tennessee River is formed at Knoxville, Tenn., by the junction of the Holston and French rivers, flowing south and southwest to its confluence with the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky., a distance of 650 miles. It drains an area of nearly 41,000 square miles and flows through portions of four states: Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Rugged mountains and green forests dominate the eastern portion of the valley; rolling hills, open fields and woodlands lie to the west. From Mount Mitchell, towering 6,600 feet near the eastern boundary of the watershed in North Carolina, the topography of the valley ranges downward to Paducah, which is a little more than 300 feet above sea level.

Development of water resources on the Tennessee has been ongoing for almost two centuries. Lt. Thomas Hutchins, a British Army engineer, first mapped the river in 1769. Then, it was a tortuous, boulder-strewn stream that was choked by such obstructions as the Narrow and Muscle Shoals. Pioneers of the region, however, successfully traveled the river in canoes, flatboats, keelboats and other craft, creating a commerce that was vital to the area’s economic development and prompting the government to improve it for navigation.

Many plans were made to bypass the shoals, but none were put into action until Congress appropriated more than $3 million for the Corps of Engineers to build a canal system that was opened in 1890. In 1916, the Corps was directed to construct Wilson Dam to supply electricity for the manufacture of explosives in World War I. It was completed in 1925 and submerged Muscle Shoals.

In 1926, the double-lift lock feature and a downstream lock and dam were completed. This permitted traffic to bypass that portion of the shoals between Florence, Ala., and the dam. The Act of Congress creating the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 gave it custody of the Wilson Project. Thus, Wilson Lock & Dam became the first in a series of existing projects to develop the water resources of the Tennessee River.