Robbins: The twisting, 'contrary' Tennessee River

Robbins: The twisting, 'contrary' Tennessee River

August 25th, 2019 by Mickey Robbins in Opinion Columns

Panorama of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River is seen from Point Park on Lookout Mountain. / Getty Images/iStockphoto/PapaBear

Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto/PapaBear

(Editor's note: Second in a series)

Dr. James Livingood, professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, wrote about the Tennessee River in "Chattanooga Country, An Illustrated History," published in 1980. Below are excerpts:

"The site of Chattanooga occupies the southern limits of the Great Valley of East Tennessee, which in turn is the southern portion of a huge geological trough extending from Pennsylvania. The valley is framed by the Unaka Mountains to the east and the Cumberland Plateau to the west. The ancient Unakas — often popularly called the Great Smoky Mountains — are a constant barrier to easy travel.

"To one of vivid imagination the landscape appeared 'as if the Titans had plowed and forgotten to harrow it.' Only a few satisfactory passageways allowed for trails or roads 'across country" (east-west); most travelers and trade moved "up and down country.'

"Through this valley, crowded with geologic faults and burdened with folded, twisted, and compressed rock, flowed the Tennessee River. It gathered its waters from the hills of north Georgia, from tributaries rushing through deep wild gorges lost in the mountain fastnesses of North Carolina, and from long parallel streams with headwaters in Virginia. Although far from its mouth, the serpentine waterway was already a mature river with a wonderful timeless history. Like a true western stream, it was filled with shoals and reefs, gravel and sand bars, snags and sawyers.

"Boatmen using the old river constantly rounded bends and confronted new vistas. Early [European] mapmakers, too, had a difficult time finding a standard name for the stream. They called the waterway or sections of it Acansea Sipi, Cusatees, Hogohegee, Callamaco, Kallamuchee or Kallamak, Cherokee or Riviere des Cheraquis. Finally, the name Tennessee was chosen to honor a Cherokee town called Tunnissee, Tanase, Tenese, or some other spelling variation.

"Southwest of Chattanooga, near the entrance to a mountain gorge, the river passes a sentinel unique in its shape and grandeur. Like the many mountains nearby it has forested sides, cascading streams, a palisade crown and wears a variety of seasonal colors. But Lookout Mountain with its surroundings of mingled valleys stands out as a natural landmark which through the years has symbolized the silent strength, endurance, and beauty of nature. It is Chattanooga's logo.

"Opposite the promontory of Lookout Mountain, the Tennessee twists in every direction, outlining the shape of a giant Indian's moccasin.

"After the Tennessee River flows past Lookout Mountain, instead of continuing a southern course through a slight divide and on to the Gulf of Mexico, the contrary river chose to leave the East Tennessee Valley by cutting its way through the Cumberland Plateau.

"The mountain which Lookout faces across the Tennessee River gorge is the southern point of Walden Ridge, named for a Tennessee long hunter of pioneer vintage, possesses many of the same rough and irregular physical features as its companion to the south.

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

"Steep wooded slopes climb from the water's edge to a ring of cliffs of gray sandstone 1,000 feet overhead. Early rivermen called the 20 or more miles of this mountain stretch of the river the 'Narrows' or sometimes the 'Suck'; enthusiastic writers dubbed it the 'Valley of the Whirlpool Rapids,' while modern tour guides label it the 'Grand Canyon of the Tennessee.'

"When the first steamboat from the Ohio laboriously ascended the Tennessee River in 1828, an editor noted that passage through this stretch of water downstream from Ross's Landing had been 'impossible to be performed by any being or thing except the sturgeon and the catfish.'

"Ross's Landing — consisting of a decrepit ferry, a crude cabin for the ferryman, and a 'kind of shanty for goods' on the southern bank of the Tennessee River — marked the start of Chattanooga. About 1816 the small settlement began to serve the local trade and also became a transfer point for river traffic to roads running through a gateway to the south and on around the shoulder of the Appalachian Mountain. The Landing, surrounded by virgin forests, represented the business interests of the brothers John and Lewis Ross, youthful Cherokee Indians of mixed blood.

"Early in 1819 the United States purchased land north of the Tennessee River from the Cherokee, and on October 25 of the same year Tennessee created Hamilton County. For the next 16 years the river formed the boundary between an emerging white frontier and the Indian nation."

Frank "Mickey" Robbins, an investment adviser at Patten and Patten, is coordinator of this Local History series. Those wishing to contribute to the series may forward drafts to For more visit

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