Originally one of the wildest rivers east of the Mississippi, the Tennessee has become a major waterway in the southeastern United States.
From headwaters above Knoxville, Tennessee the Tennessee first flows south on a U-shaped journey to its most on the Ohio River, 652 miles away. Past Chattanooga, Tennessee, it turns west through the Cumberland Plateau, once the site of the Narrows, a 20-mile gauntlet of hazards with names like "the Boiling Pot" and "the Suck". Muscle Shoals in northwest Alabama was the river's worst obstacle, resisting the hardiest boatmen. Northbound to its mouth at Paducah, Kentucky, the river was calmer, and Union forces used it as an invasion route during the Civil War.
Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 to solve the river's problems and produce electrical power. Today, 50 TVA dams regulate the Tennessee basin flow, producing the bulk of the electricity used in the seven states of the Tennessee Valley. Nine dams on the main river submerge the old perils, and barge traffic now runs freely the length of the river.
The Cumberland's 693-miles crescent begins as a small mountain stream rising from headwaters in the coal country of Harlan County in southern Kentucky.
It was an early route west for pioneers in the 1700s. French Lick, now Nashville, Tennessee, became the first major settlement on the Cumberland in 1708. After a 68-foot plunge down the Cumberland Falls, today's river reaches Wolf Creek Dam, the first of 10 dams that ensure a navigable channel on the river's lower two-thirds.
The Cumberland River's Lake Barkley and the Tennessee River's Kentucky Lake run parallel a few miles apart from northern Tennessee into southern Kentucky. Here, the lower river passes the site of Fort Donelson, where Union naval forces scored their first major victory in the Civil War. The Land Between the Lakes, a 40mile strip between them, has been transformed by TVA into a model recreational and educational preserve.
The rivers take separate routes north, and the Cumberland empties into the Ohio River 12 miles east of the mouth of Tennessee.