River Gorge Explorer

Tour Highlights and Civil War History

The River Gorge Explorer departs from the Chattanooga Pier virtually right behind the Tennessee Aquarium. Each cruise begins by heading downstream towards Moccasin Bend, a sharp curve in the Tennessee River at the foot of Lookout Mountain.

Cruising to Connect with Nature and History
Chattanooga has always been a community tied to the river running through it.  When the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992, the “Renaissance on the River” began as the city embraced the waterfront which has been the cradle of civilization here for thousands of years. Historical vignettes, tracing that history in bas-relief, are part of the Aquarium’s exterior motif. These 53 engraved medallions tell the story of man’s connection to the Tennessee River. This new adventure on the river will help bring some of those stories to life, while at the same time re-emphasizing the importance of fresh water in our lives, and the Aquarium’s mission to “inspire wonder and appreciation for the natural world.”

Archaeological digs by the University of Tennessee Chattanooga on Maclellan Island have unearthed evidence of man's history here dating back some 10 to 12,000 years.  Some recent evidence suggests that date could be pushed back to around 15,000 years ago. The Cherokee knew the Tennessee River as Yu nwi Gunahita, the Long Man.  The Cherokee always chose to live beside the river. The sites were carefully chosen and always beautiful, had mountains in the background and murmuring water flowing past their settlements.  Today, the city of Chattanooga rises from one of those Cherokee sites. Sadly, Ross’s Landing is also known as the beginning of the Trail of Tears.

A River View of Civil War History
During the Civil War, the Tennessee River was a strategic transportation artery for both North and South. Notable military points exist between Downtown Chattanooga and historic Pot Point. Tennessee Aquarium naturalists highlight strategic locations for passengers aboard the Tennessee Aquarium River Gorge Explorer.

Each cruise begins by heading downstream towards Moccasin Bend, a sharp curve in the Tennessee River at the foot of Lookout Mountain.  Looking up from the water's edge you will imagine what it was like to assault this famous mountain on the morning of November 24th, 1863. On that morning, Union forces began fighting their way from the base of the mountain near Moccasin Bend to the top where Confederate troops had positioned themselves.  The top of the mountain was shrouded in a low cloud deck which forms quite often throughout the year.  Thus the famous "Battle above the Clouds". 

This route also retraces the troop movements from downtown Chattanooga to Brown’s Ferry during a turning point of the Civil War. Prior to the “Battle above the Clouds,” Confederate forces controlled the two most reliable supply routes available to the besieged Union army in Chattanooga.  Only a rickety road across Walden’s Ridge, (Signal Mountain) was accessible to wagon trains carrying food, clothing and ammunition into the city.  

In late October, the Union army’s new commander, U. S. Grant, put in motion a plan to secure a more steady supply.  He ordered Union troops stationed in Bridgeport, Alabama to march north and seize the valley west of Lookout Mountain.  At the same time, he ordered troops from Chattanooga to use pontoon boats to float around Moccasin Bend and capture Brown’s Ferry.  Once they secured the ferry landing army engineers would build a pontoon bridge over which fresh troops and adequate supplies could be brought into the city. 

In the early morning of October 27, 1,150 men under the command of William B. Hazen boarded pontoons near Downtown Chattanooga and set out toward Brown’s Ferry. Once Union forces drifted silently past Confederate troops, they were able to land on the river’s south bank and take the rebel guards by surprise.  By sunrise they had secured the area and began building a pontoon bridge.

Just downstream from Moccasin Bend and Brown’s Ferry is Williams Island.  This natural treasure is owned by the State of Tennessee - Division of Archaeology, but is managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.  Here evidence of man settling the area dates back to the 12,000 year range. During the Civil War, one of the men who stole the locomotive "The General" from Atlanta escaped custody from authorities in Chattanooga and hid out on Williams Island until he was recaptured. 

Wonderful Williams Island
Just downstream from Moccasin Bend is Williams Island.  This natural treasure is owned by the State of Tennessee - Division of Archaeology, but is managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.  Here evidence of man settling the area dates back to the 12,000 year range. However, the latest evidence suggests that date could be as far back as 15,000 years ago.  These people were hunters and gatherers for the most part, but they also grew crops.  This fertile island has had agricultural activities off and on throughout the years up to today.  Farmers raise cattle here today and certified organic farming takes place on a limited basis.  The island has reverted back to a naturally wooded state over much of the acreage, and there is also a wetland on the island that is home to many native amphibians as well as beavers.  Without some carefully managed agriculture, the island would become overgrown very quickly and it would be impossible to continue archaeological research. 

It is common to see large groups of whitetail deer, some occasionally swimming to and from the island.  Large flocks of wild turkey inhabit Williams Island and may be observed from the water. Williams Island is an excellent place to view butterflies and see many species of native songbirds.  Hawks can be seen circling overhead frequently, and osprey nest on a platform near the downstream end of the island.

River Gorge-ous! 
As the River Gorge Explorer continues downstream away from Lookout Mountain and Williams Island, you will pass between Raccoon Mountain and Signal Mountain. During the Civil War, lookouts stationed atop Signal Mountain would send coded messages to troops below. This strategic high ground was important for observing troop and supply movements below.

Many people will enjoy the thousands of species of plants that can be observed within the Tennessee River Gorge.  In the spring, wildflowers will fill the steep sides of the gorge with vibrant colors.  In the summer, the mountains are a rich green which stretches out in all directions.  And in the fall, the carpet of autumn color blanketing the canyon will inspire everyone who views it. Some endangered plant species such as the mountain skullcap can be found in the gorge.  

It is this rich biodiversity that has brought scientists to the area since before the United States declared independence.  Quaker William Bartram, a naturalist, was commissioned by Dr. John Fothergill of London to travel into these lands, not to trade but to study.  In 1773, he embarked on a four-year expedition through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. (Most likely this included the Tennessee River Gorge as well.  Remember, the territories were larger then than the states are now.)  

Navigational Nightmares
Farther downstream are the former sites of some of the worst navigational hazards known in the East.  They were known as "The Suck", "The Skillet", "The Frying Pan" and "The Boiling Pot or The Pot". Long before the Tennessee Valley Authority tamed the river, the Tennessee was a wild river.  Huge fluctuations from times of drought to flood kept many from negotiating the river gorge.  And the fearsome four - Suck, Skillet, Pan and Pot were daunting by themselves.  Imagine foaming, roaring, swirling obstacles like these, combined with angry native tribes chasing you from high above on the gorge's walls.

Many people may know the epic tale of the Donelson Party's four-month journey from Fort Patrick Henry on the Holston River, through the Tennessee River Gorge to French Salt Spring on the Cumberland River, a thousand mile journey by water.  This flotilla of boats, flatboats, dugouts and canoes carried more than 200 pioneers, many of them women and children.  Donelson's diary tells of difficulty after difficulty: Indian attacks, frostbite and smallpox.  Just after successfully navigating through the Suck, the Jennings family boat ran aground while under fire from Chickamauga Indians on shore. The other boats continued downstream while Mr. Jennings' son and two others scampered safely to shore, but three women stayed on board.  One of them had delivered a child the night before.  Mrs. Jennings and another woman got the boat off of the rocks and downstream.  The women were drenched, and their dresses torn by bullet holes, but they survived.

Today the Tennessee River Gorge Trust's Pot Point Cabin stands on the north shore of the Tennessee River just past where the once treacherous Pot ripped boats apart.  In fact, it is believed that some of the old growth timber inside the original portion of the cabin was salvaged from a flatboat that was destroyed in either the Suck or the Pot.

Watching for Wildlife in the Gorge
A Tennessee Aquarium naturalist will be on the lookout for wildlife on every excursion and help guests identify the animals seen on each cruise. Fishermen occasionally report seeing river otters playing in the Gorge, along with muskrats, beaver, deer and turkey.  Kingfishers are seen along the banks of the river as well as herons, hawks and ospreys. Bald eagles are also known to travel through and nest within the Tennessee River Gorge. Several species of hawk are also residents within the Gorge. Birders will be pleased with the diversity of species that can be seen from the observation deck of the River Gorge Explorer. 

A Complete Learning Adventure
This journey is as much about the history of the Gorge as it is about the plants and animals. The area is a natural treasure that has been preserved for future generations to enjoy.  

Come visit the Tennessee Aquarium and discover our wonderful connections to nature from the mountains to the sea. Then join us aboard the River Gorge Explorer and experience “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon” as it was meant to be seen - from the water.