The River

The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers

Originally called “Tanasi” after a Cherokee village on its bank, the Tennessee River marks the boundary between Middle and West Tennessee. At approximately 652 miles long, the Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio River. Formed where the Holston and French Broad rivers meet, the river flows from Knoxville, TN southwest toward the Chattanooga before it loops through northern Alabama, and returns to Tennessee. This impressive journey is part of what makes the Tennessee River the centerpiece of one of the country’s most important waterways.

Flowing into the Tennessee River via a channel near Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is the Cumberland River. The Cumberland is approximately 688 miles long and is runs through both central Tennessee and southern Kentucky. The river flows west from the Appalachian Mountains before it meets with the Ohio River at the mouth of the Tennessee River. Some major tributaries of the Cumberland River include the Obey, Caney Fork, Stones, and Red rivers.

Today, the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers serve important roles in the lives of the nearly 8 million citizens that live in their watershed. These rivers provide water, hydropower, natural beauty and recreation to numerous major cities including Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga in Tennessee as well as Huntsville, Bridgeport, and Florence in Alabama.


River Flow and Use

The Singing River

Tennessee and Cumberland River Species

The Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers are home to various  species. These rivers are among the most aquatically biodiverse river systems in North America. It is also habitat for the largest nesting population of bald eagles in the United States. The Nature Conservancy considers the Tennessee Basin as a whole to be the single most biologically diverse river system for aquatic organisms in the United States. It also harbors the highest number of imperiled species of any large basin in North America with 57 fish species and 47 mussel species considered to be “at-risk.” The southeastern U.S. possesses about 90% of the world’s species of mussels and crayfish, about 73% of the aquatic snails, and about 50% of the freshwater fish of the continental United States. The Tennessee River system alone is home to about 230 species of fish and 100 species of mussels, many of which are endemic to the watershed. The Tennessee River is currently the most important source of commercial mussels in the world.

Keep your rivers flowing as they will, and you will continue to know the most important of all freedoms—the boundless scope of the human mind to contemplate wonders, and to begin to understand their meaning. — David Brower.


River Uses

The natural resources of the Tennessee River watershed generate millions of dollars for state and local governments. Thousands of people enjoy the Tennessee River and its tributaries for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing, swimming, hiking, nature photography, picnicking, birdwatching, windsurfing, camping, water skiing, and wakeboarding.


Many citizens fish for fun, sport, or to provide food.  The Tennessee and Cumberland River and its tributaries are nationally renowned for all types of sport and recreational fishing. The BassMasters Tournament is often held on the Tennessee River as are other major fishing tournaments. Fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass is especially popular.

Thousands of people enjoy the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers each year for boating of all kinds from sailboats, motorboats, bassboats to kayaks and canoes – these waterways welcome boaters and vessels of all shapes and sizes.  The Tennessee and Cumberland River watersheds are home to some of the best canoeing, kayaking, and rafting in the United States.  Commercial rafting is popular on the Ocoee and Hiawassee Rivers.  Canoers and kayakers find everything from calm family floats to raging whitewater and steep creeking.  Tellico River in East Tennessee and South Sauty Creek on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville are both regarded as challenging creek runs and are just a few of the many “experts only” runs in the watershed. The Ocoee River is one of the most visited paddling destinations in the world and was home to the 1996 Olympics for whitewater slalom.

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The Tennessee Valley Authority is required by the TVA Act to maintain an eleven-foot channel on the Tennessee River in order to allow commercial vessels to efficiently move their goods by water year round. Nine main and four auxiliary locks, located directly on the Tennessee River, allow for both commercial and recreational boat traffic to navigate down the river.

Commercial navigation on the Tennessee River supports a myriad of Valley industries that rely on barges to supply raw materials. Barges large enough to carry 60 semi-trucks gently move asphalt, road salt, zinc, and fertilizer to customers along the river. Water transportation is responsible for the movement of many sizeable items as well, such as steam generators and construction machinery. Approximately 54 million tons of goods are transported on the Tennessee River each year. Shipping these commodities via the Tennessee River saves $400 to $500 million dollars compared to shipping on rail or roads. This competition between river passage and other commercial transportation helps drive down costs for truck and rail customers.

Recreational navigation also thrives on the Tennessee River. Along the river, locks allow nearly 13,000 personal watercraft to navigate between lakes each year. These reservoirs serve as prime destinations for paddleboarding, swimming, and world-class bass fishing. The river itself is home to numerous events such as the Tennessee River 600, an eight day journey down the river to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Traffic on the Tennessee River is currently at the center of an environmental debate. Organizations like the National Waterways Association argue that transportation via truck produces as much as 371% more carbon dioxide emissions than barge transportation. Relying more on barge traffic could be an important factor in reducing our carbon footprint. Other groups, like the Institute for Water Resources, argue that barge traffic has a negative impact on native river species. There have been large numbers of species extinctions around the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers in part due to the transportation volume of these waterways.


Environmental Impact

Economic Impact and Barge Traffic


The Singing River

Each segment of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers hold a unique history and culture of the lands they touch. For example, where the Tennessee River flows into Muscle Shoals, AL there is a legend of a Native American girl who would sing beautifully, inspired by the sounds of the river. Settlers and other tribes would hear her voice and believe the song came from the water itself. This led to the nickname “The Singing River” and the Muscle Shoals region has gone on to produce such hit songs as “Mustang Sally”, “When a Man Loves a Woman”, and “Freebird”.





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