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The Tennessee River is the largest tributary of the Ohio River. It is approximately 652 miles long and forms the Tennessee Valley. The river was once popularly known as the Cherokee River, among other names. Its name is derived from the Cherokee village name Tanasi.


The Tennessee River is formed at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers on the east side of Knoxville, Tennessee. From Knoxville, it flows southwest through East Tennessee toward Chattanooga before crossing into Alabama. It loops through northern Alabama and eventually forms a small part of the state’s border with Mississippi, before returning to Tennessee. At this point, it defines the boundary between Tennessee’s other two Grand Divisions: Middle and West Tennessee. The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project providing navigation on the Tombigbee River and a link to the Port of Mobile, enters Tennessee near the Tennessee-Alabama-Mississippi boundary. This waterway reduces the navigation distance from Tennessee, north Alabama, and northern Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico by hundreds of miles. The final part of the Tennessee’s run is in Kentucky, where it separates the Jackson Purchase from the rest of the state. It then flows into the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky.


The river has been dammed numerous times, primarily by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) projects. The placement of TVA’s Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River and the Corps’ Barkley Dam on the Cumberland River led to the creation of Land Between the Lakes. A navigation canal located at Grand Rivers, Kentucky, links Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. The canal allows for a shorter trip for river traffic going from the Tennessee to most of the Ohio River, and for traffic going down the Cumberland River toward the Mississippi.


The Tennessee River begins at mile post 652, where the French Broad River meets the Holston River, but historically there were several different definitions of its starting point. In the late 18th century, the mouth of the Little Tennessee River (at Lenoir City) was considered to be the beginning of the Tennessee River. Through much of the 19th century, the Tennessee River was considered to start at the mouth of Clinch River (at Kingston). An 1889 declaration by the Tennessee General Assembly designated Kingsport (on the Holston River) as the start of the Tennessee, but the following year a federal law was enacted that finally fixed the start of the river at its current location.


At various points since the early 19th century, Georgia has disputed its northern border with Tennessee. In 1796, when Tennessee was admitted to the Union, the border was originally defined by United States Congress as located on the 35th parallel, thereby ensuring that at least a portion of the river would be located within Georgia. As a result of an erroneously conducted survey in 1818 (ratified by the Tennessee legislature, but not Georgia), however, the actual border line was set on the ground approximately one mile south, thus placing the disputed portion of the river entirely in Tennessee. Description above courtesy of Wikipedia


Reservoirs formed on the Tennessee River by TVA dams beginning at headwaters:


Fort Loudoun Dam impounds Fort Loudoun Lake

Watts Bar Dam impounds Watts Bar Lake

Chickamauga Dam impounds Chickamauga Lake

Nickajack Dam impounds Nickajack Lake

Guntersville Dam impounds Guntersville Lake

Wheeler Dam impounds Wheeler Lake

Wilson Dam impounds Wilson Lake

Pickwick Landing Dam impounds Pickwick Lake

Kentucky Dam impounds Kentucky Lake



Please consider showing your appreciation of The Tennessee River by picking up some litter during your next visit, many hands make light work.

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