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Improving the Tennessee River for transportation

photo of steam boats

During the early days of commercial navigation, steamboats on the Tennessee River had to contend with low water, swift currents, and rocky shoals.

Ever since Native Americans and fur traders first loaded canoes, the Tennessee River has been an important mode of transportation. The river provided a much quicker and easier way of transporting people and goods than the overland route.

But it came with its own set of problems: low water and navigation hazards such as swift currents and rocky shoals. Later on, flatboats and steamboats had to deal with the same problems encountered by the early settlers. Periodic floods and droughts made travel up and down the river even more difficult. As the population of the Valley grew, so did the region’s commerce. The lure of reliable water transportation was finally strong enough to justify the challenge of improving the river for navigation.

That task fell to TVA, created by an act of Congress in 1933. Along with flood control and hydropower generation, navigation was one of the main objectives for which the new agency was to manage the river—putting it to work for the people of the Valley.

By 1945, the navigation channel was essentially completed: a system of dams and locks set the stage for decades of thriving river traffic. Today, over 38,000 barges carry more than 50 million tons of goods up and down the Tennessee River annually.

Learn more about TVA’s history here.

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