TENNESSEE River, formed by the confluence of the Holston River and the French Broad River, near Knoxville, Tennessee, follows a serpentine course into northern Alabama and from there northward to the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky. The length of the main stream is 652 miles, and the total drainage area is 40,569 square miles. Called for a time the Cherokee River, it was used extensively by Indians on war and hunting expeditions, especially by the Cherokees, some of whose towns were located along the branches of the river in southeast Tennessee. In the mid-eighteenth century, the Tennessee Valley played an important part in the Anglo-French rivalry for the control of the Old Southwest that culminated in the French and Indian War. The river was also an important route for migration of settlers into the Southwest after that war.
Use of the river for navigation was handicapped by the presence of serious obstructions, especially the Muscle and Colbert shoals at the "Great Bend" in northern Alabama. The problem of removing or obviating the obstructions to navigation has been a perennial one that has received spasmodic attention from the federal government as well as from the states of Tennessee and Alabama, including a grant of public lands to Alabama in 1828 for the construction of a canal, and several subsequent surveys and appropriations. In the twentieth century, discussion of the river shifted from navigation to power production and flood control. During World War I, construction of the Wilson Dam and nitrate plants at the Muscle Shoals initiated a nationwide controversy over the question of public or private ownership and operation of power facilities. Since the New Deal created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, the river has been the subject of an extensive program involving navigation and flood control, fertilizer experimentation, and the production and sale of electric power, all of which fueled the social and economic transformation of the Tennessee Valley. The river has been made into a chain of reservoirs, or lakes, held back by nine major dams. As a result of TVA improvements, freight traffic on the Tennessee, which had been one million tons in 1933, had reached twenty-seven million tons per year by the early 1970s. By 1985, the 234-mile Tenn-Tom waterway opened, connecting the river's Pickwick Lake to the Tombigbee River at Demopolis, Alabama.
Davidson, Donald. Tennessee: The Old River, Frontier to Secession. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978.
Droze, Wilmon Henry. High Dams and Slack Waters: TVA Rebuilds a River. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1965.
S. J.Folmsbee/h. s.