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Sebowisha at Caney Fork River and Smith Fork Creek in Tennessee

Sebowisha at Caney Fork River and Smith Fork Creek in Tennessee

Caney Fork River  – Rivers & Lakes worth remembering

Sebowisha at the confluence of Smith Fork Creek and The Caney Fork River

My power spot and how it might have gotten its name:

For those unfamiliar with the place name “Sebowisha,” it’s located where Smith Fork Creek enters the Caney Fork River a little over a mile below TWRA’s Betty’s Island Access Area. The Tennessee Central Railroad has a bridge over Smith Fork Creek near the confluence. When floating the river, look for the I-40 bridge down river from Betty’s Island Access Area and make a quick decision: river left or river right because you are now about to float around the Real Betty’s Island. The right channel is narrower but deeper; if you are using a motor boat during zero generation, take the right. You’ll have mostly brown trout on river right and mostly rainbow and brook on river left. On river right is Congo Bottoms, the name that most people know this part of the river by; however, to me, it’s all Sebowisha on the Smith Fork Creek Side (river left) other than Devil’s Garden, which is the next place name just down river left.

Sebowisha Caney Fork River Tennessee Central Bridge over Smith Fork Creek


I puzzled over the odd place name “Sebowisha” for years and occasionally asked local people where the name came from. All I heard was some speculation about it being an American Indian name. One day I was hiking back to my car from Sebowisha and I met a very pleasant and friendly man walking the opposite direction. He introduced himself as Mr. Lancaster and he mentioned that he walked along the railroad tracks nearly everyday from his home nearby. So I asked him about Sebowisha and learned a great deal about its history from this kindly and knowledgeable man but he too wasn’t sure of the origin of its name. Now Lancaster is the name of a charming little town that lies close by on river left about 2 river miles below the dam. Sebowisha on the other hand is 11.5 river miles below the dam by river. Lancaster is only a couple miles from Sebowisha on foot because the river makes a big jog east around Moss Bend. It turned out that the very Mr. Lancaster standing before me has his home on Lancaster Lane in the small town of Lancaster. I’ve often thought about his remarkable bond and sense of place/name. Perhaps Mr. Lancaster of Lancaster Lane in the town of Lancaster is as local as one can get?


About a year or two later, while looking at a small 8 acre plot of land that was for sale nearby Sebowisha, I met the woman that, at the time, owned Sebowisha along with another adjoining and remarkably beautiful piece of property. She was very nice and invited me, a complete stranger, up for some tea on her porch. During our conversation about the plot of land that was listed for sale by a friend of hers I asked if she might know the origin of the name “Sebowisha”. Her eyes brightened and she said “I don’t know the origin and no one I’ve ever asked does but they sure misspell it a lot on road signs in the area!” I laughed and agreed hiding my disappointment (again). Then she mentioned that she was the owner of The Sebowisha and that she hadn’t listed it for sale yet but had just decided to sell it a few days earlier. I about fell over in excitement while trying hard not to show it. Long story short, it would have required me to get a loan and I wasn’t willing to go back into debt. After discussing it with my wife and several friends and relatives about a co-op fishing club, I very reluctantly decided against buying it. I regret it to this day. I told the local banker about it and said, “I’m not going to get it so if you know anyone….” Within two weeks it was sold. The banker, as usual, “got all the credit” with the lucky person that owns it to this day.


The point is that even the owner of the property didn’t know the origin of the name “Sebowisha.” I was about to just give up and concede that the origin of the name was lost in the fog of history.


Until one Sunday after church my wife, daughter, father and I went for a hike down the
Tennessee Central railroad tracks that run high on a bluff along Smith Fork Creek. Dad had never been there before and as we crossed over the perilous (for pedestrians) wooden planks of the railroad bridge on Smith Fork Creek I mentioned the place name “Sebowisha” to him and told him about its elusive origin. He said it didn’t sound Indian to him (he was a linguist) and that it “rings a bell, Longfellow….?” I knew Longfellow was a 19th century poet that I had been forced to read as a teenager but that’s about all. I sure didn’t remember any Sebowisha but my brain doesn’t work like that. All I remembered was the name Hiawatha and all the unfortunate confusion the title caused for the Iroquois and the real Hiawatha.

Sebowisha Gravel Bar Caney Fork River


The next day I got a call from my Dad. He was back home in Kentucky and said he had called to tell me he had found “Sebowisha” in his copy of “The Song of Hiawatha” a truly epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in part 6, “Hiawatha’s friends.” Dad humbly said, “not sure why I remembered that.” I admit I was silly with excitement because, after he had read the passage to me, it made so much sense now how the original owners might have decided on the name Sebowisha.


Excerpt from “The Song of Hiawatha-Part 6 Hiawatha’s friends:”


“When he sang, the village listened;
All the warriors gathered round him,
All the women came to hear him;
Now he stirred their souls to passion,
Now he melted them to pity.
From the hollow reeds he fashioned
Flutes so musical and mellow,
That the brook, the Sebowisha,
Ceased to murmur in the woodland,
That the wood-birds ceased from singing,
And the squirrel, Adjidaumo,
Ceased his chatter in the oak-tree,
And the rabbit, the Wabasso,
Sat upright to look and listen.
Yes, the brook, the Sebowisha,
Pausing, said, “O Chibiabos,
Teach my waves to flow in music,
Softly as your words in singing!”


Long ago the owners of the Tennessee Central Railroad had built a lodge for their private use as a vacation home above the high bluff at the confluence of the Smith Fork and Caney Fork, a place now called Sebowisha. It is a prime spot for a railroad baron’s lodge with its commanding views, access only by train and incredible natural beauty. The family would have most likely been highly literate and before the building of I-40 nearby with its steady whine of truck traffic, they would have been able to hear the murmuring brook, their Sebowisha, from their lofty perch above the confluence of Smith Fork Creek and the Caney Fork of the Cumberland.


I suspect that the family that built the lodge and named the place Sebowisha was that of Jere Baxter who founded one incarnation of the Tennessee Central Railroad in 1893. Longfellow published the Song of Hiawatha in 1855 and at the turn of the century it would have still been a popular piece of literature.
Jere Baxter
TN Central Railway http://wiki.ask.com/Tennessee_Central_Railway?oo=14219
The Song of Hiawatha http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=62


It is said that the family would take a train to the foot of the bluffs and park it for their exclusive use while vacationing at their lodge. I’ve heard repeatedly that the lodge was abandoned because of a tragedy that befell the family while staying at the lodge. Their young son drowned in the waters below and his grave is near the ruins of the old lodge high on the pinnacle of the bluff. I’ve looked upon it, finally finding it grown up in briars and if memory serves me well the epitaph reads: “planted on earth to grow in heaven.” In the spring, their long ago love tribute to him is revealed in the blooming of such an abundance of hyacinths, daffodils and iris that it would certainly have taken a train to haul all the bulbs to plant the place. Acres of these flowers have literally flowed down the hillside in a nearly one hundred year old profusion of heartbreak and parental anguish. I have photos of the grave site and the flowers in bloom somewhere and if I ever find them, I will post them.


I’ve never been able to determine when exactly but the lodge burned some years after the boy’s death. I’ve been told it sat empty and unused for some time. No one I’ve talked to knows how it burned but judging by its high exposed position on the ridge several folks have said they thought it was lightning. I’ve also heard that the mother of the boy that died, overcome by grief at the memory of the place, burned it down. Another version is that the railroad was in deep financial distress and the lodge may have been burned for insurance reasons. All that matters is that it is but a ruin now, a nearly forgotten place of glory. There is about a three acre plot of land that the lodge proper stood on and I am told that two elderly sisters that are descendants of the railroad baron still own it and that they live in Nashville.


I once thought about contacting them to see if they would be interested in selling it but it would seem like carpetbagging to me and it’s enough to just imagine what it would be like to own and restore what a buddy of mine calls “your power spot.”


Nearly every time I drive on I-40 I glance over at what looks like just another forested hill and certainly every time I float my boat down the waters there I think of Sebowisha and “wisha” I had been willing to take a loan to buy the Sebowisha. Whatever the origin of its name really was, it’s a lovely place, especially in the spring when even now a long dead parents’ love is revealed and shared with those who come to know the story of the premature death of their beloved son. So much love that it’s hard to see clearly the profusion of blooming flowers. So much love that the sight of this most beautiful place was made ugly to those that named it and built their refuge from the city upon it.


If you have any facts or speculations about Sebowisha I hope you’ll contact me via the contact form on this website.


Sebowisha is private property; I always take a trash bag and pick up litter in the area and bet that whoever owns it now, upon finding me there picking up trash would allow me continue to come and show my respects in the spring.


Be a part of the solution, pick up litter and keep it out of our localwaters.
We can’t all afford a trainload of flower bulbs to show respect to our children and grandchildren but we can all afford to take a minute to solve the litter problems created by the rascals amongst us.


Mark Martin, March 2012


View Larger Map


Sebowisha, Betty’s Island and Congo Bottoms
In the satellite image the river is at full generation, it looks much different, particularly here, at no generation


The Sebowisha-Caney Fork River and Smith Fork Creek

The Sebowisha @ confluence of the Caney Fork River and Smith Fork Creek

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