The Canal That Almost Changed Tennessee’s History | State


Eighth grade students in Tennessee learn about the Erie Canal, the man-made body of water that connected the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. They also learn that the Erie Canal is largely responsible for making New York City America’s largest city.

The American “canal era” bypassed Tennessee. But one canal has almost changed the history of our state.

The Conasauga River is the only river in Tennessee that is not part of the Mississippi, Tennessee, or Cumberland systems. It flows west through Polk and Bradley counties in southeast Tennessee, then flows south into Georgia.

From there the Conasauga merges with two larger rivers and eventually empties into Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Before man-made dams were built in the 20th century, there were many obstacles to navigation on the Tennessee River. Downstream from present-day Chattanooga was a series of rapids and streams with names such as Suck, Frying Pan, and Boiling Pot. A hundred miles further along the Tennessee River there was an even worse series of barriers known as the Muscle Shoals.

While it may all sound like kayaker’s paradise, the boatmen who carried cargo along the Tennessee River in flatboats and rafts did not see it that way. In fact, the barriers to navigation along the Tennessee River were so severe that they stunted the commercial growth of the eastern part of the state.

Merchants in eastern Tennessee were always looking for alternatives to the long and dangerous descent of the Tennessee River, to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and to New Orleans. In 1821, some keelboat operators attempted another route. They started taking the Tennessee River downstream to Hiwassee, then the Hiwassee upstream to the Ocoee, then the Ocoee upstream to a point five miles south of present-day Benton. The ships and cargo were then hoisted onto wagons and dragged nine miles south, where they were lowered onto the Conasauga for the long journey to Mobile Bay.

For about a generation, products such as flour and whiskey were regularly transported by the porterage (which, by the way, passed through Cherokee territory). The route, although an interesting alternative, was not commercially efficient enough. In fact, no sooner had it started to be used that there was talk of a canal connecting the Ocoee and Conasauga rivers.

In 1826, the Tennessee General Assembly granted a charter to the Hiwassee Canal Company, the intention of which was to develop the canal. Around this time, Tennessee Governor Joseph McMinn asked Congress to get permission from the Cherokee Nation to build the canal.

The US Department of War sent two engineers to study a potential route for the canal. The men determined the route was feasible and said 15 locks would be needed – 10 on the Ocoee side and five on the Conasauga side.

If the Ocoee-Conasauga Canal had been built, eastern Tennessee could have developed much further before the Civil War. Bradley and Polk counties would almost certainly have larger towns today.

However, the channel was never created. One of the reasons was President Andrew Jackson’s lack of enthusiasm for federally funded internal improvements. But the main reason seems to have been opposition from the Cherokee Nation. It was one thing to allow goods to be transported on their territory; selling land for a canal was another. When asked to sell the land through which the canal would be dug, the Cherokee chiefs rejected the idea.

During the 1830s, Cherokee issues centered around the Indian Removal Act and the tragic Trail of Tears that followed. By the time the Cherokee left, the railroads were taking control of America. The Ocoee-Conasauga Canal has never been dug.

Today, the Ocoee is known for whitewater rafting. The Conasauga is notable for the biodiversity of its freshwater life. But he is unknown to most Tennessee residents. In fact, there is supposed to be a fountain at the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park for every river in the state.

I say “meant to be” because there isn’t one for the Conasauga River – the “ignored” body of water that almost changed Tennessee’s history.

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