Forgotten villages, classic river towns, Civil War battlefields, and the remnants of a vast iron-making empire make the Tennessee River Trail a rich tapestry of history, ready for exploration. Only a few historic river towns survive today, but there are those who still remember what it was like to live in these vanished communities. The Tennessee River Trail helps to tell their stories, celebrates the rich history of the area, and showcases the beauty of the Tennessee River.
EARLY HUMAN HISTORY
Believed to be close to a thousand years old, The Cedar Creek Indian Mound in Linden was constructed by members of the Mississippi culture that dominated the region for hundreds of years. The mound measures 120 feet around and 20 feet high, and though it has eroded through the years, this mound is still one of the largest in Tennessee. Near Savannah, on a bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, the Shiloh Indian Mounds National Park is the site where a Native American town stood over 800 years ago. The rectangular mounds visible today were platforms for the town's important buildings; the round-topped mounds were burial sites for the society's leaders and important members.
RIVER TOWNS & NEW ROADS OF COMMERCE
Many of the earliest communities along the Tennessee River were river landing towns, located directly on its banks. Most early transportation utilized the river, and commerce was largely dependent upon it. Keelboats, showboats and other craft would routinely call on these waterside communities. With the coming of the railroad, river traffic declined, but the towns remained sustainable.
The Natchez Trace was originally the road tradesmen used to return to Nashville after leading boats down the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers to Natchez and New Orleans. The Natchez Trace Parkway stretches 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville. It follows and connects a series of ancient trails used by animals and people as they traveled through this area to find food, to hunt, to travel from place to place, to settle in a new territory, to march to battle and to create communities. Today, the many short hiking trails are some of the best examples of what it must have been like to travel on the Old Trace.
The Clifton Turnpike was built in 1840 by large plantation owners in Maury County, 70 miles to the northwest as a way to get their cotton to the Tennessee River. The turnpike passes through the 22,000-acre Eagle Creek Wildlife Management Area, one of the largest expanses of public hunting land in the state.
THE TRAIL OF TEARS
The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek and Seminole were separate nations of Native Americans located in the southeastern United States. Previously, under President Thomas Jefferson, American policy had been to accept Native American rights to their homelands.
Later, as expansion continued, President Andrew Jackson sought to open these lands to American settlers and began to push for removal of all Native Americans in 1829. This resulted in Congress passing the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Indian Removal Act received wide support in the southern United States, where there was a strong public desire for access to lands inhabited by the tribes.
“The Trail of Tears” was the name given to the U.S. Army’s forced relocation of Native Americans, which began in 1838. Three land routes were established, two crossing the Tennessee River: one route crossed the river near modern-day Waverly, through Benton County and south of Paris; another traveled through Waynesboro and Savannah.
On the way west, Native Americans suffered from starvation, exposure, disease, harassment, and indifference from local settlers. Scholars estimate that 4,000 died during the ordeal of removal. Today, 2,200 miles of trails mark the removal of the Cherokee people. Called the "Trail of Tears National Historic Trail," this historic path crosses nine states.
AN EMPIRE OF IRON
Buildings, bridges, railroads and tools—nearly everything needed on the frontier was made from iron. And in Middle Tennessee iron ore was plentiful, as was the limestone needed to make it pure and strong. All along the Tennessee River Trail are former Middle Tennessee iron industry towns that helped to supply the earliest foundations of an expanding American frontier. Furnaces used to smelt the ore, as well as kilns that made lime for removing impurities from the ore, dotted the landscape as iron became the state’s first true industry.
Both Stewart County and Decatur County were known for their brown iron ore that was turned into charcoal iron and high silicon. The Brownsport Furnace, located in Decatur County, was the first blast furnace in Tennessee. A commissary, trails and cabins for workers surround the 1840s structure now on the National Historic Register.
In Dover, you’ll find one of the best-kept furnaces along the trail: the Bear Spring Iron Furnace and its towering rock structure served as a charcoal cold-blast furnace built in 1830. Operations continued until 1854, and the stack was destroyed in 1862 by Union troops during the Civil War. The current furnace was constructed in 1873 when the rail line operated on the current highway, but stopped operating in 1907.
Built in 1834, the Cedar Grove Iron Furnace in Linden once employed over 100 workers and turned out 40 tons of ore a week. The iron was hauled two miles west to Cedar Creek Landing on the Tennessee River and shipped throughout the South. During the Civil War, the furnace was attacked by Union gunboats, and production stopped soon after. It is the only surviving double-stack furnace in Tennessee.
The white stone twin limekilns on the south side of Highway 49 in Erin were erected around 1871. They produced 60,000 barrels of lime per year and employed about 100 men by 1883. A block north is Quarry Limekiln; production here began in the 1880s and continued until the 1940s.
CIVIL WAR AND THE RIVER TOWNS
Tennessee was the last state to leave the Union and join the Confederacy in 1861. By February 1862, U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces were already on the move toward Nashville. First they captured Fort Henry, and then began advancing toward Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, a major Confederate garrison defended by thousands of soldiers.
Determined Confederate resistance stopped Grant from taking the fort immediately. When Confederate commanders, due to their own confusion, failed to break Grant’s lines, some escaped with their soldiers while General Simon Buckner stayed to surrender the remainder. Buckner asked for terms of surrender, to which Grant replied “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” The official surrender was conducted at the nearby Dover Hotel, now referred to locally as the “Surrender House.” General Grant became a household name in the North and gained a new nickname: “Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
The surrender was a humiliation for Buckner personally, but also a strategic defeat for the Confederacy, which lost more than 12,000 men, 48 artillery pieces and much equipment, as well as control of the Cumberland River, setting the stage for the fall of Confederate Tennessee: Later in the same month, Nashville became the first Confederate state capital to be captured and occupied by Union troops.
April 6 and 7, 1862 marked the bloodiest days thus far in the Civil War at the Battle of Shiloh, where 24,000 casualties from both sides were wounded or killed. The battle began when Confederate soldiers attacked Union troops while they were eating breakfast at their camp outside of Savannah, a stop on their long march to Corinth, Mississippi. Taken by surprise, the Union troops retreated. The Confederates stopped to eat some of the food left behind and loot the Union camp, delaying their advance.
As the battle started, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was eating his own breakfast at Cherry Mansion in Savannah, his headquarters for six weeks before and after the battle. As the women of Cherry Mansion were supporters of the Confederacy, Grant did not wear his uniform in the house out of respect for his hostesses. Grant heard the gunfire and sent additional troops to the point on the Tennessee River opposite the battlefield. The Confederates continued to aggressively charge the Union line and seemed to be closing in on a victory by nightfall.
The next morning, the Confederates continued their attack, unaware that Union reinforcements were arriving to support Grant’s weary men. The Union Army made a strong advance that morning, before the scattered Confederate troops had time to organize, and the Union regained most of the ground they had lost the day before. While the Confederates awaited reinforcements that would never come, fighting continued throughout the day, with the Union Army slowly advancing. By the end of the day, the Confederates had exhausted their ammunition and suffered heavy losses, and so they retreated to Corinth.
The next morning, Union troops caught up with the Confederates at Fallen Timbers, about six miles down the road. Led by General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederates aggressively charged the Union in a last effort that dissuaded them from following further. Today, Shiloh National Military Park is one of America’s best-preserved battlefields with 156 monuments, 217 cannons and more than 650 historic tablets.
In 1864, forces under the command of Forrest also attacked the Johnsonville depot from a position on the opposite side of the Tennessee River. The Union Commander ordered the destruction of the depot’s supplies to prevent their capture by the Confederates, and Johnsonville was essentially destroyed by the battle and ensuing flames. Today the former town’s location is now Johnsonville State Historic Park, where the original fortifications made by Union forces during their occupation have been preserved and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
It is also worth noting that during the Civil War, Henry County and its seat Paris sent over 2,500 volunteers to the Confederacy, earning the title "Volunteer County of the Volunteer State."
NEW CHALLENGES AND BIG CHANGES
By the early 20th century, poor farming practices had left soil eroded and depleted of nutrients throughout Tennessee, while the logging industry had decimated the forests. As a result, the economy was already unstable, and then the Great Depression occurred making life in the state even more difficult.
To help address the severe economic problems facing the mostly agrarian region, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska led the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which taught farmers how to improve crop yields, replanted forests, and created a series of dam systems to generate electricity and help control flooding.
Although many families were displaced when the government created the artificial lakes required to operate the dam systems, the plentiful and inexpensive electricity attracted many new industries to the region, dramatically boosting employment and improving the quality of life for all residents.
The plentiful and inexpensive electricity attracted many new industries to the region, dramatically boosting employment and improving the quality of life for all residents, though many people were displaced and forced to relocate when their property was seized by the government and flooded to create the artificial lakes required to operate the dam system.
Once the TVA decided to flood many areas along the Tennessee River in order to create lakes to support a new chain of hydroelectric dams, many small communities along the river had to be abandoned. The best remaining examples of classic Tennessee river towns are Savannah and Clifton, both the location of major Civil War battles and raids. There are now only three operating ferries left in Tennessee and two are in counties along the Tennessee River Trail.
The Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area was designated a national recreation area by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The plan called for a new dam and the evacuation of the entire former "Between the Rivers" area to establish a new TVA experiment designed to demonstrate new uses of recreational lands.
Unlike a national park, this new recreation area was to include areas where hunting would be allowed, and where other attractions outside the normal National Park format could be successfully staged; a buffalo range and a re-created 1850-style farm called "The Homeplace” were added in the 1970s. Many area residents resented the condemnation of their land, especially when it revealed that most of the area was not to be flooded but rather to become a park. The former settlements of Tharpe and Model in Tennessee and Golden Pond in Kentucky were all forcibly abandoned.
A TENNESSEE STAR FALLS
One of the most influential, successful and acclaimed female vocalists of the 20th century, Patsy Cline was an American country music singer who enjoyed incredible success with the “Nashville Sound” during the early 1960s. Her hits include “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams.” Cline was not only a star talent, but a shrewd businesswoman as well. Music show promoters were notorious for leaving performers unpaid, but it was said that “You don’t mess with the Cline,” as Patsy insisted she was paid in advance and would refuse to perform unless the promoter did so.
Patsy Cline died in 1963 in a private airplane crash near Camden, at the height of her career.
She was flying back to Nashville in a small, four-seat plane from a benefit show in Kansas City, along with other artists. Cline’s friend Dottie West encouraged her to ride home in a car with her, but Cline politely declined, saying: “Don’t worry about me, hoss, when it’s my time to go, it’s my time!” Ten years after her death, she became the first female solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame®, and in the fifty years since her death, her albums have sold millions upon millions of copies all around the globe.
A COAL MINER'S DAUGTHER RISES TO FAME
Born the second of eight children in rural Kentucky, Loretta Lynn grew up in a poor coal mining family during the Great Depression and was already married by the age of 15. An accomplished singer in church, her husband encouraged Loretta to learn the guitar. Loretta made her way to Nashville and found an influential new friend in the legendary Patsy Cline. Many of Loretta Lynn’s albums—like “Coalminer’s Daughter” and “Lead Me On”—were certified as gold records and kept her popularity growing through 1960s and 70s.
More recently, her widely praised album “Van Lear Rose,” produced by Grammy-nominated Rock artist and Nashville resident Jack White, helped to introduce her incredible talents to a whole new generation. Today admirers can visit her beautiful farm near Hurricane Mills, Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, which celebrates the life and career of one of the most beloved female performers in country music.
REMEMBERING OUR ROOTS
Tennessee has produced many famous Americans, including world famous author Alex Haley. Haley is known around the world for his acclaimed novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Drawing on the stories of his extended family, Roots tells the story of generations of African-American slaves in the South. The 1976 book won a Pulitzer Prize and its television adaptation won over 145 awards, including nine Emmys.
Haley is buried on the grounds of his grandparents’ home in Henning and a statue honoring him in Knoxville is one of the largest monuments to an African-American in the country. On the Tennessee River Trail, you’ll visit the burial site of his paternal grandparents, Alex and Queen Haley, at Savannah Cemetery. Alex Haley ran the Cherry family’s ferryboat across the Tennessee River, while Queen Haley worked as a domestic in Cherry Mansion, where General Ulysses S. Grant was headquartered during the Battle of Shiloh. Her story inspired Queen, the 1993 Golden Globe-nominated miniseries starring Halle Berry.
You’ll visit breath-taking natural wonders, explore the last authentic river towns in Tennessee, see where brother fought against brother in spectacular Civil War battles, and experience the living history of the Tennessee River on the Tennessee River Trail.