Where Does the Tennessee River Start?

The Tennessee River is the biggest tributary of the Ohio River and is situated in the Southeast region of the United States. A body of water that empties into a larger body of water, such as a lake, is called a tributary. Typically, this is a river or stream. At the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers, in Knoxville, Tennessee, begins the Tennessee River.

Over its 652-mile length, the Tennessee River is renowned for linking numerous Tennessean, Kentuckian, and Alabamian cities. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Tennessee Valley developed thanks to connections between towns in these southern states. The Tennessee River is not just extraordinarily lengthy, but it also has historical and contemporary significance.

Tennessee River Starting and Ending Points

The French Broad and Holston Rivers meet near Knoxville, Tennessee, marking the beginning of the Tennessee River. After then, it meanders through Tennessee, Alabama, and finally empties into Kentucky’s Ohio River. The river nearly misses Georgia by 250 feet as it approaches its border.

Two of Tennessee’s three Grand Divisions, West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee, are divided by the river that flows north. For a short distance, the river also serves as a border between Alabama and Mississippi.

In addition, as the Tennessee River flows into Paducah, Kentucky, it passes through numerous cities and villages and is used for industrial reasons. It passes through Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is the state’s fourth-most populous city. It is utilized here for shipping and transporting heavy goods across the Appalachian Mountains that encircle the city. The Tennessee River also provides water to other sizable Alabaman cities like Huntsville, Decatur, and Muscle Shoals.

Eventually, the Tennessee River flows into Kentucky from the north after leaving Tennessee. It eventually empties into the bigger Ohio River at Paducah.

History of the Tennessee River

The history of the Tennessee River extends over about 8,000 years. Due to excavations conducted at Russell Cave in Alabama, which is close to the river, historians have estimated this period. Parts of the Tennessee River were also discovered in 1540 by the renowned Spanish conquistador and explorer Hernando de Soto. They set up camp in what is now Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, beside the river.

The Cherokee people established their homelands along the banks of the Tennessee River, hence the name Cherokee River. Before being referred to as the Tennessee River, it is seen as the “River of the Cherakees” on a British map from 1755. Tanasi is the name of a Cherokee settlement, from which the state of Tennessee is derived.

The Tennessee River has been significant to American history. The Union pursued the river as they advanced westward into the Confederacy during the Civil War. There were numerous conflicts fought along the river and in the Tennessee Valley. There were significant engagements in Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Shiloh, Tennessee. At the conclusion of the Civil War, almost 23,000 American soldiers had died in one of the bloodiest engagements, the Battle of Shiloh.

Dams Along the Tennessee River

Four years into the Great Depression, in 1933, Tennessee Valley Authority Act was passed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority, providing jobs, and improving the efficiency of power generation.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was established with the straightforward objective of enhancing, modernizing, and revitalizing the area. It was suggested that dams be constructed in order to produce power and protect areas that are vulnerable to flooding from flooding. They would be constructed alongside the river itself as well as all of its flow and tributaries.

Thus, work on the first dam began in 1933, the year the Tennessee Valley Authority Act was ratified. 1936 saw the completion of Norris Dam. The TVA eventually constructed a 650-mile navigation channel, which allowed it to become the country’s leading supplier of electricity. Furthermore, in 1957, the Chickamauga Dam saved Chattanooga from impending destruction. The fourth-largest city in Tennessee was spared from being submerged by one of the biggest floods in the river’s history because to the recently built dam.

Pollution in the Tennessee River

Regrettably, the Tennesee River has become one of the most polluted rivers in the country due to its quick development.

About forty-five dams along the river are managed and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority. On its banks, there are eleven coal-fired power facilities as well. The river now has pollution issues as a result of this type of industrialization.

In 2008, one of the worst instances of river contamination ever recorded happened. At the Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, an embankment or wall meant to keep floods out broke apart. More than 300 acres were covered by nearly a billion gallons of wet coal ash from this catastrophe, which also poured into the Clinch and Emory rivers, which are also tributaries of the Tennessee River. It was a catastrophe for the environment as well as industry. Although no one perished in the first spill, exposure to the poisonous coal ash caused about 40 deaths later.

Still, steps are being taken to aid in the Tennessee River’s cleanup. Numerous groups, such as Maintain the Tennessee River Beautiful, are actively organizing cleanups to properly remove pollutants and other dangerous materials from the river. Their goal is to preserve the river and keep it pristine for future generations.

Wildlife in the Tennessee River

The wildlife that inhabits the waters of the Tennessee River is diverse and abundant. It is regarded as one of North America’s most biodiverse aquatic habitats. This is a result of the wide variety of aquatic animals that inhabit it. Since the river is home to one of the biggest nesting populations of bald eagles in the country, bald eagles are very frequently observed near it.


There are roughly a hundred different species of mussels in the Tennessee River and its tributaries and runoffs. The freshwater mussels were a food source for the Native Americans in the area. Crushed mussel shells were used by the Mississippian culture to make pottery. To reinforce the pottery, they would combine the shells with the clay. Because so many different types of mussels can be found in the river, it is a significant commercial site. However, the population of mussels in this area has significantly declined in recent decades as a result of invasive species, dam construction, and river pollution.

This river is home to a variety of creatures in addition to mussels.Along the entire river, otters, beavers, and muskrats are frequently spotted. Furthermore, the river is home to nearly 230 distinct species of fish.


Fish that are native to East Tennessee include the snail darter (Percina tanasi), which can be found in the river. In 1975, this little fish was listed as endangered. But in 1984, things changed, and it’s now regarded as a threatened species. Living in the river is another endangered species, the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens). These sturgeons are enormous animals; they have a maximum length of 6.5 feet and a maximum weight of 240 pounds.


Finally, another amazing creature that may be seen along the Tennessee River is the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). Bald eagles nest in big bodies of water throughout the winter, and you can frequently spot them by the river’s edge. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle Protection Act safeguard this North American native, which is also the official national symbol of the United States. Since their population has increased, they have been removed off the endangered species list.

In summary

At the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers, in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Tennessee River begins. It travels for over 650 miles from this point, passing through Tennessee and Alabama until emptying into the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky. It is home to numerous animal species and has a lengthy and rich history. Unfortunately, though, the river has become one of the most polluted in the country due to industrialization. Nonetheless, initiatives are underway to help preserve and clean up the river for future generations as well as for us.