Home > About > History > Twin Rivers

Twin Rivers

The Nashville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was formed in Nashville, Tennessee, on August 18, 1888.  Army Special Order No. 191 directed, on that date, Colonel John W. Barlow to move the District headquarters from Chattanooga to Nashville, forming the Nashville District. 

From the beginning of commercial navigation on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers until the Civil War, little effort was made to improve the waterways.  Efforts were stimulated by a booming steamboat trade which developed after 1820. Several Towns along the Cumberland to include  Dover, Clarksville, Nashville, and Smithland, KY became steamboat construction centers.

The Steamboat era launched an economic revolution. By 1824, a dozen steamboats were carrying tobacco, hemp, and cotton down the Cumberland. There was a down side to this though. Gruesome steamboat accidents, so common on the inland waterways, occurred frequently on the Cumberland.

In their natural state, the twin rivers were practically impassable at the lowest water levels, strewn with rocky shoals, rapids, and sand and gravel bars, making Navigation  extremely perilous.   Wooden hulls were easily damaged, and after accidents, boatmen could usually only salvage the damaged cargo. 

In April of 1824, Congress passed the General Survey Act, charging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to prepare surveys, plans, and estimates to improve channels. 

Then, in May 1824, the first Rivers and Harbors Act was passed.  It provided for the improvement of navigation by removing snags, old sand bars, and the clearance of timber from the banks.  -- From this date on, THE U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS was given the mission of keeping the rivers navigable.

When Congress enacted the first appropriation bill for the improvement of the Cumberland River in 1832, Captains Henry Shreve and Richard Delafield were ordered to examine the river from its mouth to Nashville and devise a plan for its improvement. 

During the period of 1833 to 1834, workmen cleared the banks of the Cumberland of trees and driftwood from Nashville down to Camp Rowdy (near the present site of Barkley Dam), in Kentucky and raised a number of wrecked boats from the channel.  Rock obstacles were blasted from the channel small wing dams were constructed at the shoals to aid navigation.

During the period of 1832 to 1838, Congress appropriated an additional $100,000 for the improvement of navigation on the Cumberland River below Nashville.    Steamboats no longer had to transfer cargo and passengers to smaller boats at Smithland, KY but instead, could steam all the way to Nashville.

In 1867, Congress directed a survey of the Tennessee River from Chattanooga, TN to Paducah, KY. The Engineer Survey party report became the basis for improving the river.  It emphasized the importance of the coal traffic and the need for removing obstacles in the channel that wrecked an average of 12 out of every 40 barges descending the river.

In 1871, The District Engineer proposed to rebuild and enlarge the old canal at Muscle Shoals, AL, and build two additional canals.  Construction began in 1875.  16 miles of canal was opened in 1890 and at the time this was the longest steamboat canal in the U.S.

Canal projects on the twin rivers contributed to the renewal of hope and revival of trade and industry in the Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys after the Civil War. Canals, however, were not the long-term solution to navigational problems.  For deep-draft vessels, the construction of locks and dams would be required.

In 1887, the District Engineer, Colonel John Barlow, prepared the designs for the first lock and dam on the Cumberland River, right across from the Metro Center Levee.

Prompted by requests from the Cumberland River Commission, various legislators, and Vanderbilt University, Army Special Order 191 was signed which directed Col. Barlow to open the first Nashville District Office at 609 Broad Street.

This was the second time Col. Barlow had been stationed at Nashville, the first being during the Civil War in 1864.  With Confederate General John B. Hood and his army closing in, Barlow arrived in Nashville on November 13, 1864 and immediately took charge of the defense of the city under General Zealous B. Tower.  Barlow directed elaborate fortifications around what was then called the “depot of the west,” and successfully kept hood’s Confederate forces at bay. 

Lock and Dam No.1, designed by Col. Barlow, created a pool for Nashville, the busiest harbor on the Cumberland. 

The last of the 15 locks and dams built on the Cumberland for navigation was completed in 1924. This established a six-foot minimum project depth for the Cumberland River.  At the end of the 1900's, river commerce on the Cumberland and Tennessee River systems was dying.  Railroads ended flatboat and raft traffic on the waterways and curtailed steamboat traffic. River traffic dropped down to less than ten boats per year.    The last commercially-operated steamboats were taken out of service in 1933.

Urgent needs of World War I led to the construction of the world’s largest dam at the time -- Wilson Lock and  Dam near Florence, Alabama, on the Tennessee River.

Wilson opened in June 1927.  For the first time, our dams included hydropower.  Wilson Dam and powerhouse were then turned over to TVA in 1933, when that agency was established. 

Flooding on the river remained a problem.  Under the Flood Control Act of 1938, Corps projects were given a third purpose – flood control. 

Under this Act, the Nashville District investigated six reservoir sites along the Cumberland and its tributaries. 

This led to the choice of Wolf Creek Project in KY for immediate construction in 1941. Congress also authorized construction of Center Hill and Dale Hollow Dams in Tennessee.

Just three months after the Wolf Creek groundbreaking ceremony came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II for the U.S.

Congress directed that the construction of Wolf Creek Dam be expedited to furnish power for southeastern war industries.

It was (and is) one of the largest dams in the eastern United States. Wolf Creek was the beginning of multi-purpose development in the Cumberland River Basin.

On the lower Cumberland, commercial traffic was hindered by the size of the locks constructed for steamboat traffic prior to 1924. In 1945, the District proposed a nine-foot minimum channel depth and modern locks for the lower Cumberland.

Construction of Cheatham Dam began in 1950 and it was dedicated in 1954. That same year, Congress approved construction of the Barkley Canal, connecting Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake.  Barkley Lock opened to navigation in 1964 and the Barkley project was dedicated in 1966.

That brings us to today.

The District, with a force of more than 800 employees, is responsible for directing all water resources activities of the Corps throughout the Cumberland River Basin, and navigation and regulatory matters in the Tennessee River Basin.  The District’s Construction and Operations program is spread throughout the 59,000 square mile area that touches on 7 states.

In the Cumberland Basin, the Nashville District operates and maintains ten multi-purpose projects for navigation, flood damage reduction, hydropower, environmental stewardship, and recreation.  Nine of these generate hydroelectric power.  The District has four navigation locks on the Cumberland.

In a typical year, Nashville spends some $16 million for hydropower Operation & Maintenance, yet during that same period about $32 million from hydropower revenues are deposited into the U.S. Treasury.

Last year, the District spent $9.8 million for recreation and natural resources management, with 51 million visitors to our parks.  The economic impact from recreation at the District’s ten lake projects for the same year brought $1.3 billion to the local communities.

On the Tennessee River Basin Nashville District works in partnership with TVA.  Physically located up and down the Tennessee River operating 15 navigation locks at 11 locations, two project offices and regulatory offices, the District carries out regulatory activities, streambank protection, flood control, and operation and maintenance of all navigation facilities and the channel.