The Cumberland River is a major waterway of the Southern United States. The 688-mile (1,107 km)-long river run through southern Kentucky and north-central Tennessee. The river flows generally west from a source in the Appalachian Mountains to its confluence with the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky and the mouth of the Tennessee River. Major tributaries include the Obey, Caney Fork, Stones, and Red Rivers. Although the Cumberland River basin is predominantly rural, there are also some large cities on the river including Nashville and Clarksville, both in Tennessee.
The explorer Thomas Walker, of Virginia, in 1758, named the river, but whether for the Duke of Cumberland or named for the English County of Cumberland it is not satisfactorily decided.
The Cumberland River was called Wasioto by Native Americans and Riviere des Chaouanons, or "river of the Shawnee," by French traders. The river was also known as the Shawnee River (or Shawanoe River) for years after Walker's trip.
Important first as a passage for hunters and settlers, the Cumberland River also supported later riverboat trade which reached to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Villages, towns and cities were located at landing points along its banks. Through the middle of the 19th century, settlers depended on rivers for trading and travel.
the Cumberland region grew in population and agricultural wealth as keelboats and other craft ran produce such as tobacco and cotton from Nashville down to New Orleans. In the early 1800s sailing ships like the seventy-four-ton Concordia were built at Cairo in Sumner County, sailed downriver to New Orleans, and were sold for use in coastal and foreign commerce. In March 1819 the steamboat General Jackson arrived in Nashville. Nashvillians financed the construction of the steamboat and it was registered to the Port of Nashville. By 1828 boats were steaming up to the Caney Fork, and in 1833 the Jefferson reached Burnside, Kentucky.
In 1825 increasing steamboat trade led the Tennessee legislature to petition Congress for a survey of the Cumberland, which had become the main shipping path for Middle Tennessee produce. Between 1832 and 1838 Congress appropriated $155,000 for river improvements, viewing the potential production from coal fields of eastern Kentucky as justification for navigational improvements. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began alterations that included clearing snags and constructing wing dams to deepen the channel. The improvement project ended, however, with the Panic of 1837 and did not resume until the 1870s.
The Cumberland River also was of strategic importance during the Civil War. Confederate Fort Donelson, constructed 50 miles from its mouth on the Ohio River, guarded the river approaches to Nashville. When the fort fell to U.S. troops in February 1862, Flag Officer Andrew Foote quickly brought that section of the river under Federal control. Union boats patrolled the river to Carthage throughout the Civil War, but Confederate guerrillas often threatened the stretch between Nashville and Clarksville. The Upper Cumberland proved hard to defend also, and Confederate troops often crossed between Hartsville and the state line to carry out raids in Kentucky. In 1865 peace brought a new boom to the river.
In the early 1870s timber became a major industry on the river. Hardwood logs from the Upper Cumberland forests were rough sawn into hundreds of thousands of board feet at mills scattered from Carthage to Kentucky. Assembled into rafts up to 100 by 30 by 8 feet in dimension, the timber was floated on high tide to Nashville and other markets for finishing. Cal Hamilton, an African American from Celina, became one of the most famous pilots of these rafts. Other famous rafters from Celina included Bob Riley of tall-tale fame.
In 1871 Colonel S. T. Abert surveyed the river for the Corps of Engineers. His work generated two estimates for navigational improvements. The more expensive proposal, and the one favored by the corps, called for the construction of thirty locks and dams for slack water navigation. The corps justified the expense as providing access to the great coal fields of Kentucky, the timber of the Upper Cumberland, and the iron of the Western Highland Rim below Nashville. In 1887 engineers designed the first lock and dam (No. 1) to be built on the Cumberland above Nashville, and canal construction began in 1888. In 1892 Congress authorized construction of Lock and Dam A at the Harpeth Shoals. By 1900 six stone or concrete and timber dams had been built below Nashville and eight above. In 1924 fifteen locks and dams raised the river to a minimum of 6 feet from Burnside to Smithland, but by that time traffic from steamboats and log rafts had diminished significantly. The last steamboat, Rowena, left the trade in 1933. Gasoline-powered towboats took over the river scene, while railroads handled much of the freight.