In a small article in the Cherokee Phoenix Newspaper on January 7, 1829, which was a Wednesday by the way, you will find a resolution by the House of Representatives.
This article states that the Secretary of War be directed to lay before the House a report from the Board of Engineers on the subject of making a canal between the Hiawassee and Connasaugu Rivers, for the purpose of connecting the same waters. The House also demanded the report of Major Armstrong upon the same subject, under the authority lately given to him to open a negotiation with the Cherokee Nation.
I found it interesting that the first mention I saw of this, in fact almost all the information I can find on these commissions, are located within the pages of a Cherokee publication. Searching further you can actually read the letters sent between the principle Chiefs at the time and Major Armstrong. Something in me also sees it as foretelling that the Secretary of War was charged with this commission.
The U.S. War Department sent two men, one of whom was a West Point-trained civil engineer, to survey a potential canal. The men determined that the route was “feasible” and said 15 locks would need to be created — 10 on the Ocoee side and five on the Conasauga.
The Conasauga River flows west through Polk County in southeast Tennessee. It crosses under Highway 411, dips into Bradley County and turns south into Georgia. From there it continues past Dalton and merges into the Oostanaula River. The Oostanaula flows into Alabama, merges into the Coosa River and after hundreds of twists and turns makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
In fact, the Conasauga River is the only river in Tennessee that is not part of the Mississippi, Tennessee or Cumberland River systems. Though today this may sound like trivia, it made the Conasauga quite alluring in the early 1800s.
East Tennessee merchants and boatmen were constantly looking for alternatives to the long, bumpy and dangerous trek down the Tennessee River, all the way to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and down to New Orleans. In 1821, some keelboat operators tried something different. They began taking the Tennessee River downstream to the Hiwassee River, then the Hiwassee up-stream to the Ocoee, then the Ocoee upstream to a point about five miles south of present-day Benton. Boats and cargo were then lifted onto big wagons and dragged by oxen nine miles south, where they were lowered onto the Conasauga for the long journey to Mobile Bay.
Both ends of this portage were on Cherokee land. The portage on the Ocoee side was owned and operated by a Cherokee family named Hildebrand, while the portage at the Conasauga end was operated by the Mc-Nair family.
Had the Ocoee-Conasauga canal been built, Tennessee history might have turned out differently. East Tennessee might have grown a lot more prior to the Civil War. Bradley and Polk counties might have larger cities today. Also the biodiversity would have been affected. The Conasauga has at least 10 species of fish and mussels listed as endangered and threatened — and many of them might be gone by now had the isolated Conasauga system been connected to the Tennessee River system.
However, the canal was never built. The main reason appears to have been the opposition of the Cherokee Nation to the canal. It was, after all, Cherokee land at the time. When asked to sell the land through which the canal would be dug, Cherokee chiefs rejected the notion outright. Read the netters mentioned above the conversation is worth it. By the time the Cherokee removal was happening, trains had already come to the area and the canal was deemed unnecessary.
The Hiawassee played so many roles in both the Cherokee Nation and in the forming of what we know as the TVA. The river is dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in four locations: Chatuge Dam, Mission Dam (not owned by TVA), Hiwassee Dam, and Apalachia Dam. As World War II begins in Europe, three of four dams on the Hiwassee River are built for the national defense effort.
Take a side trip on your next visit in our area to one of the dams. The river they are built from is as old as time and was always known to be important to the way of life for those living in it’s range.
Thank you for spending a little time with us today and as always
Welcome to the Mountains