Physical Description

Despite its name the Tennessee River does not begin in the Volunteer state. The Tennessee is by far the largest river system, to pass through the state of Alabama. Parts of the river basin occupy seven states in the southeastern US.

Alabama’s Tennessee Basin is home to the rarest cavefish in America, the Alabama cavefish, considered to be one of the rarest freshwater fish in the world. (US FWS)

The Alabama portion of the Tennessee River Basin is located along what is called the “Great Bend.” The name Great Bend was an Indian term adopted by early settlers to describe the arc of the Tennessee River as it reached its southern most bend in what is today Alabama.

The Tennessee Basin in Alabama drains roughly 13% of the State’s 51,705 square miles. (McDonald-Lore of the River)


The Tennessee River begins at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers near Knoxville, Tennessee. After following a 652 mile course, the mighty river empties into the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky.

The Tennessee is an unusual river that follows an unusual path, flowing southwestward, then northwestward, then northward. Most theories of its unusual path indicate that at one time, it is likely that the original channel did not flow through what is today North Alabama.

As the Tennessee cuts westward across North Alabama it flows through the limestone formations of the Cumberland Plateau until it reaches Muscle Shoals in the northwestern corner of the state. It is here that the Tennessee crosses the Fall Line demarcating the coast of an ancient sea. It may appear odd to conceive of this area almost 400 miles from our present Gulf of Mexico as a prehistoric coastline. (McDonald Lore of the River)

The rapids at Muscle Shoals fell 137 feet in 37 miles and served as the dividing line between the Upper Tennessee and the Lower Tennessee. Because of these shoals, river commerce during the 18thand 19th century was a challenging feat. Due to the tremendous fall of the shoals, those who wanted to transport goods on the river viewed these shoals as nothing more than an obstruction. (McDonald Lore of the River)

The width of the river at the shoals was quite unusual as the shallow rapids spread the river out as broad as the Mississippi. (McDonald Lore of the River) Even more unusual was the incredible lack of depth, even allowing for the summertime crossing of the River without wetting one’s feet. (Paddling the Tennessee River)

The first attempt to overcome these challenging and somewhat treacherous shoals began with the construction of a channel around the shoals. (McDonald Lore of the River)

The final taming of the river came with the construction of Wilson Dam and the advent of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933.

The Alabama portions of the Tennessee River Basin fall within several distinct regions of the Cumberland Plateau Physiographic Province. The first portion, referred to as the Guntersville Lake Section, lies primarily within the Sequatchie Valley with a small portion in the Southwestern Appalachian Valley. This subsection of the Tennessee contains 2,669 square miles of drainage area and includes the Sequatchie River watershed. The topography of this region channels the flow of the Tennessee in a southwesterly direction.

After the completion of one of the largest navigational improvement projects in the U.S., the Tennessee River can now take a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico via the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.