Our River

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

You know it’s time for a vacation when everything you read and hear sours your soul. I turned off the television “news” months ago, but the rants of the utterly despicable Dianne Feinstein and Democrats are everywhere, returning to their playbook of “Borking” and Clarence Thomas “high tech lynching” as they attempt to destroy Brett Kavenagh.

Washington D.C. is a swamp, but the Senate has shown itself to be a cesspool and represents the worst America can produce. I’m not worried about Russia or China. I’m afraid of the McCarthyism of the left that has taken over the Democrat party. And supporting their ballot box functuaries is tantamount support for Feinstein and Spartacus. So for my own “health and wellbeing” I’m taking leave from our civil war for some needed R&R.

Becky and I love baseball so we escaped on an anniversary road trip and met friends in Atlanta for a Braves’ game. We’ve seen ball games in New York, Kansas City and Baltimore. We once cheered the Cubbies in Chicago, while eating hot dogs and singing, “Take me out to the ballgame…,” with Harry Caray. My first big league game was at the old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. I still remember walking into that park as a kid and seeing the greenest grass, the reddest dirt and the bluest sky imaginable. And there I was introduced to hot dogs as sausage with brown mustard. All I’d previously known were pink weenies with French’s yellow mustard.

In a previous Focus essay I wrote about the forks of the river, where the Holston and French Broad join to form the Tennessee River just above Island Home Airport. In a later essay I wrote about our River as it courses through Chattanooga on its way to Alabama. At this writing I’m traveling away from the “cesspool” of Washington and towards west Tennessee to reconnect with our beautiful River after its sojourn across northern Alabama.

The three divisions of our State are defined by the Tennessee River as it first flows south to Alabama and then north to Kentucky. There the Tennessee joins the Ohio River at Paducah, Kentucky, about thirty miles above the confluence of the Ohio and the mighty Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, immortalized in Mark Twain’s stories of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Before we rejoined our River at Muscle Shoals, in northern Alabama, Becky and I played an anniversary round of golf on a Robert Trent Jones course in northern Alabama, and spent the night with friends in Birmingham. My Birmingham friend spent his career with TVA and educated me on the TVA and the Tombigbee waterway project, an extension of the mighty Tennessee.

The TenTom (Tennessee Tombigbee) is a series of canals beginning at the Tennessee River’s Pickwick Lake and connects to the Tombigbee River. My father-in-law was a title attorney and did many of the land titles for this project which provides a navigable waterway for commerce and recreation south through Mississippi and Alabama. Because of this project, completed in 1985, you can sail from Knoxville on the Tennessee and then down to Mobile, Alabama and the Gulf of Mexico.

Though I’m not a boat person – I prefer a cruise ship – I remember another river adventure Becky and I experienced. We and another couple rented a canal narrowboat in England. These sixty foot long barges were formerly used to transport heavy loads like coal over water because roads were poor or non existent. The Tombigbee provides the same service, though it is wider than the 19th century English canals we were introduced to. During our thirty minutes of instruction on the operation of our retrofitted barge we learned that English canals were only twelve feet wide in places, but sufficient to allow two boats to pass as long as you went slowly and everyone held their breath. As we glided through backyards (called gardens in England) abutting the canals, the locals saw our boat festooned with Tennessee and American flags and asked what we were doing on their canal. We might be similarly curious to see a Union Jack flying on a houseboat cruising Norris Lake. We just told them with our middle southern, East Tennessee nasal accent that we were “crus’n” just like Englishmen.

As we reconnected with the Tennessee River in Muscle Shoals, I learned there is a debate about the derivation of the town and shoal’s name. A river shoal is produced when bedrock elevates sufficiently to make a river shallow and produce rapids. (A steep rise of bedrock produces a waterfall.)

My father was a fisherman and I was a fisherman’s son, but not as in Paul Simon’s “Duncan.” Don’t remember the song? Listen to it on YouTube. As a boy, I remember trout fishing in the Little Tennessee River below Chilhowee dam. The word Chilhowee means Cherokee town. Legends hold that the shoals in the Little Tennessee were made by Cherokee Indians as traps for fish. I believe that the correct derivation of Muscle Shoals comes from the mussels that were able to be harvested from those shallow waters of the Tennessee River.

The TVA Act of 1933 sought to provide badly needed flood control along the Tennessee River, to develop a navigable waterway and to electrify the Tennessee Valley. Regional development of an impoverished area was another goal.

Early in the 1900s nitrate deposits were discovered in the Muscle Shoals and Senator Norris championed a dam for generating electricity necessary for converting nitrates into gunpowder. The Wilson Dam, named after Woodrow Wilson, was completed at the end of World War I, but further development of the area languished. Henry Ford tried to buy the Muscle Shoals area in the 1920s, but his offer was too low and rejected by the government. Interestingly, research into fertilizers continued and ultimately led to the science of rotating crops and adding limestone and nitrates to restore farmland depleted of nutrients.

Home is where the heart is. And another of my axioms holds that “It’s good to go, but it’s better to come home.“ So, tomorrow we turn eastward  and return to our farm, our family and the headwaters of our Tennessee River. I wish I could say that my R&R has given me a renewed optimism for our country. “War is Hell,” to quote Tecumseh Sherman. It should be a last resort because it demands sacrifice, a winner and losers. I hope America wins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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