Have you ever stood on the Walnut Street Bridge and looked down at the Tennessee River? Watching the river rush and swirl, and seeing the boats pass under the bridge. Have you ever wondered what could be lurking underneath the blue? Whether it be shipwrecks, history, folklore, or whatever it is that fish get to see, we’re going to talk about some of the possibilities.
Let’s find out what could be hiding in the Tennessee River.
In April of 2021, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga took some of his Underwater Archaeology students out on a pontoon boat to survey the Tennessee River using sonar. Dr. Morgan Smith and his students weren’t sure what they would find, but they were not expecting to find the remnants of the U.S.S. Chattanooga on the muddy bed of the river.
Photo Credit: UTC
The U.S.S. Chattanooga was a small steamboat built from scraps that eventually played a key role in the defeat of the Confederates during the Civil War in 1863. This little steamboat was created quickly so it could travel from Bridgeport to Kelley’s landing, just below the rough and narrow section of the Tennessee River that travels between the Raccoon Mountain Range called the Suck. From there, supplies could be given to Kelley’s Ferry, about 8 to 10 miles from Chattanooga. General Rosecrans gave General Hooker the order that this boat was needed within two weeks, or the Union was going to have to give up the battle for Chattanooga because they were so low on rations for his soldiers. The U.S.S. Chattanooga was built just barely on time, but it made the rough journey in the time allotted and allowed the Union to have the strength to take back Chattanooga!
Photo Credit: UTC
The U.S.S. Chattanooga was docked on the Riverfront, near the Tennessee Aquarium for many years before it began to deteriorate and sink into the river. This is a common fate for many barges here in Chattanooga. Dr. Smith and his students found a lost piece of our history almost by accident, and it still lies beneath the river not far from the Riverfront. Dr. Smith still takes students to see the sunken ship!
Video Credit: Thom Benson Scuba Diving to the U.S.S Chattanooga in the Tennessee River
Cherokee Folklore & Historic Hales Bar Dam
Thunder, His Son, and The Gambler
For quite a long time, the Tennessee River Gorge was known to not only be extremely unpredictable, but it had water hazards known as “The Skillet,” “The Suck,” or “The Boiling Pot.” These names come from Cherokee folklore and refer to whirlpools within the Tennessee River Gorge. The Cherokee had a story for this whirlpool surrounding a spirit known as The Gambler and Thunder.
According to Native American legends, Thunder or Thunderers are a powerful storm spirit clan who typically live in the sky and command thunder and lightning. They are seen in human form in Cherokee lore instead of as birds like in most other Native American lore. Thunder typically lived out West, but he would make trips to the East often. On one of these trips, he fathered a son. Thunder’s son became ill with lesions "spots" on his neck. The boy’s mother told him to seek out his father, Thunder, because he was a great doctor and could heal him. The boy then started his journey out West to find his father, but on his way, he stops at The Boiling Pot and meets The Gambler. The Gambler tells the boy his father lives very close, and he would take him to Thunder after they played a game. The boy was insistent that he must see his father first so he walked away from The Gambler and went up to his father’s home. Thunder greeted the boy and confirmed that he was, indeed, his son, and he tells the boy he can cure him of his spots. Thunder tells his wife to start boiling water in the huge pot in the corner of the house. Thunder puts the boy in the boiling water along with many herbs and roots and lets him boil for a while before telling his wife to throw the pot in the river, boy and all. She does as she is told, and the boy emerges from the river healed! This created the whirlpool according to Cherokee lore!
The story of The Gambler goes on, it turns out The Gambler plans an ancient Cherokee game that he always wins and takes the people who challenge him for all he can including their lives sometimes. The boy is told this and is adorned with a headdress and jewels, and Thunder tells him he will tell the boy how to best The Gambler, but he must win a fight against his brothers first. The boy begins to grow tired of fighting his brothers who are much stronger than him, so he takes the advice Thunder’s wife gave him and acts like he is going to strike his father’s favorite tree. Thunder ends the game to save his tree, and it is revealed to us that the boy is Lightning. Thunder tells Lightning how to best The Gambler, and Lightning takes everything The Gambler owns including his life. The Gambler tries to escape Lightning and his brothers, but they end up capturing him and putting a stake through him at the bottom of the whirlpool or “The Boiling Pot.”
Long after the creation of that tale, the people of Chattanooga noticed that these water hazards were a problem for year-round navigation of the Tennessee River. Beginning in 1898, the people of Chattanooga began trying to come up with a solution--building a dam in the southwestern section of the river. In 1905 the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company began construction on the Hales Bar Dam, this dam was being built on what was once Cherokee land. And it has a history. In 1775, Cherokee War Chief Dragging Canoe cursed the land during the illegal Treaty of Sycamore Shoals. Dragging Canoe vowed that the land would always be dark and bloody, saying it would not be inhabitable to anyone.
Photo Credit: UnderGroundEarth Photography
The Dam was supposed to have been completed by 1909, but due to the crumbling of the limestone foundation it wasn’t finished until 1913 and it ended up costing $10 million instead the estimated $2 million. Though it was one of the first major multipurpose dams and one of the first major dams built in a navigable river, it had a huge problem. It leaked almost constantly. There was an entire team dedicated to patching the leaks with anything they could get their hands on, including a truckload of corsets, but to no avail. As the decades went by, the dam was threatening to fall apart. Not only that, but several hundred workers perished while building the dam, and many other people died after its completion because of the leaks. There was a tunnel under the dam that workers and children would take to cross the river daily, and at least two children died during a leak within that tunnel.
In 1933, the TVA Act was passed, giving TVA full control of the Tennessee River’s flow and any improvements it wished to make. In 1963, TVA gets the green light over Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company, or TEPCO, to build a new damn six miles downstream. The dam they built is known as Nickajack Dam.
Photo Credit: TVA
Today there isn’t much left of the Hales Bar Dam, but it is rumored to be haunted by the people who perished building it. The Hales Bar Dam & Marina offers haunted tours, boat rentals, and even has floating cabins on the lake if you want to visit the area.
The Tennessee River Reservoirs are rumored to have some of the biggest catfish in the country! In 2005, David Harrison and his 5-year-old son Austin went out on Nickajack Lake looking for a prize catfish. They not only caught a prize catfish, but they caught two catfish over 80 pounds! These were the largest catfish Harrison had ever caught, and if he had caught them in Georgia they would have held a state record. Since Harrison caught these fish in Tennessee, he was 30 pounds shy of the record at the time which was 112 pounds!
In 2022, Micka Burkhart broke the Tennessee state record with a 118.7-pound catfish! The previous record had lasted for 24 years before Burkhart broke it. In the same year, teenager Edwards Tarumianz caught an extremely rare catfish right here in Chattanooga. Tarumianz caught a leucistic blue catfish, which means it was devoid of color much like an albino. Tarumianz was with a local fishing guide, Captain Richard Simms, who was shocked by the fish the boy caught. At 67 and with decades of fishing experience, he had never seen any catfish like it in person!