One of Chattanooga’s scenic treasures, the twenty-six mile long Tennessee River Gorge (historically known as Cash Canyon) once provided river travelers with one of their most hazardous experiences imaginable. Starting below Williams’ (aka Tuskegee) Island the stretch of river winds past Raccoon Mountain before splitting Walden’s Ridge to the north from Sand Mountain to the south and was so notoriously difficult that its fame reached even to the governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson,
Sometimes called by the name of its most famous hazard, The Suck, this stretch of river and its navigational hazards were so formidable, French agents attempting to travel upriver to reach Cherokee country during the French and Indian War, intending to establish an outpost at the spot later occupied by British agent McDonald, gave up after several attempts. Although they did set up a tiny relay post there, they had to erect their main fort on Long-Island-on-the-Tennessee, in the center of the island between a town of Koasati at the north end and a town of Kaskinampo on the other.
The river through the Chattanooga area was no picnic either. In the downtown area, the Chattanooga Shoals just above Maclellan Island gave easy passage to the fleeing “Napochi” (Tuskegee) Indians fleeing the Coosa and their Spanish allies in 1559. The water was at most knee deep at any but very rainy times. Passing this, boats next faced minor sand bars on either side of Maclellan (formerly Chattanooga) Island.
Soon after that, travelers entered the portion twisting around Moccasin Point peninsula known as Moccasin Bend. Not only did travelers have to navigate this difficult stretch, they had to deal with Ross’ Towhead (a tiny island now part of the ground supporting I-24) and its shallows, known as Buffalo Ford. The islet, named for Daniel Ross, lay opposite Moccasin Point’s “pinky toe”, and the ford just upriver of it.
After round the big toe of Moccasin Point, travelers then faced cross currents at the mouths of Chattanooga Creek and Lookout Creek, followed by another stretch of navigational hazards known as Lookout Shoals.
Just when things seemed to be looking up, travelers faced off against Williams’ Island, with the large Burrough’s Bar obstructing the channel on its right and Jackson’s Bar the channel on its left.
William’s Island is so-named for Hamilton County pioneer Samuel Williams, who came to Ross’ Landing in 1834. Before that, it had been called Brown’s Island, for John Brown of Brown’s Landing, Ferry, and Tavern, formerly judge of the Chickamauga District of the Cherokee Nation and later Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation West. Even earlier than that, the Cherokee had called it Tuskegee Island after its original inhabitants.
Below Williams’/Brown’s/Tuskegee Island was where the real fun began, at least for those of highly adventurous spirit. Just past the foot of the island lay the Tumbling Shoals.
Not far past that travelers had to avoid crashing into Holston Rock.
The most infamous hazard of all, and justifiably so, came next. Where Suck Creek gushes into the river off Walden’s Ridge, conditions led to a permanent whirlpool often spanning the entire width of the river. Often called The Suck, its “formal” name was The Kettle, and it whirled at almost the northernmost point of the river’s bend around Raccoon Mountain.
No time to breathe yet, though, for now the weary travelers had to traverse the Suck Shoals.
Heading due south now, travelers encountered the Dead Man’s Eddy.
The whirlpool named The Pot boiled where the river made a left turn.
Where the river turned back to the right, The Skillet churned below Raccoon Mountain to the left of the river.
In the middle of the following short straight stretch The Pan gave its name not just to the whirlpool but to Pan Gap through Raccoon Mountain.
One of the river’s main crossing points, Kelly’s Ferry, operated just past The Pan well into the 20th century, just above the hazard called Kelly’s Shoals.
Shortly after those shoals, the river entered a particularly tight, and therefore swift-moving 10-mile stretch of river called The Narrows.
Cash Canyon and its navigation hazards ended past Hale’s Bar, which marked the end of The Narrows and the beginning of comparatively safe river travel. Until the unfortunate wayfarers reached the 80-plus mile long Muscle Shoals.
Hale’s Bar was chosen as the site of the first major dam on the Tennessee River in the Chattanooga area. Its purpose was two-fold: first, to provide hydro-generated electricity to the local region, and second, to tame the wild, wild river. Once its locks closed in 1915, the river canyons beautiful but very dangerous features disappeared forever.