The Blog

Nashville's Fateful, Flooding River

We in Tennessee have spent the past week digging ourselves out, hauling away wreckage and holding onto each other. We want the rest of the country to understand what we are going through.
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The Cumberland River flows nearly 700 miles from eastern Kentucky, down into Tennessee, and then back up to western Kentucky, forming a shape that looks like a big southern smile. Right in the middle sits Nashville. The history of Nashville is tied to the river, and to its floods.

In 1779, Col. John Donelson led thirty families on a voyage of 1,000 miles down the Tennessee River, and up the Ohio and the Cumberland in a boat called The Adventure. During the five-month journey, settlers suffered from smallpox, hunger, Indian attacks, and -- all along the way -- from heavy rains and swift, swelled currents.

In April of 1780 they reached the area that is now Nashville. Donelson immediately planted corn and cotton. In July, heavy rains flooded his entire crop. Throughout these trials Donelson nurtured a 13-year-old daughter named Rachel, who would one day marry Nashville's most famous son, a hayseed lawyer named Andrew Jackson.

"From the mouth of the Cumberland river," wrote Rachel in one of many love letters the pair exchanged, "[your letter] came safe to hand. It was everything to me." She wrote those words in 1813, while Jackson was away fighting in the Creek War. Two years later, Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans would make him a national hero. General Jackson would eventually become President Jackson.

Meanwhile, the river kept bringing changes to Nashville. On March 11, 1819, a sudden swell in the Cumberland enabled the first commercial steamboat to pass over treacherous sand bars and reach the city. The steamer was called the General Jackson.

Jackson may have been the pride of Nashville, but his political legacy is complex. He was a populist, a common man's hero, and the father of the modern Democratic party. But he was also a slave holder who supported the forced removal of Indians from their native lands.

When the Cherokees marched on their long Trail of Tears, they passed through Nashville, crossing over the Cumberland River on an old toll bridge. In 1864, the Union army defeated the Confederates at Fort Donelson on the shores of the river. The Union victory in the Battle of Nashville broke the back of the Southern forces. And it was the last major battle in the western theater. The high points and low points of American history are mirrored in the rise and fall of the river.

On New Year's Day, 1927, the Cumberland River crested at 56.2 feet -- the highest level ever recorded.

Last week, the river crested at 52.5 feet. And the damage is unprecedented. Some reports are surreal. (The Grand Ole Opry is 10 feet under water.) A few are comedic. (Rumor has it that a large aquarium tank burst at a local shopping mall and piranha are swimming through the food court.) But, mostly, the news is tragic. The mayor says we have lost more than $1 billion. Recovery will take years. Our businesses and homes lie ruined. More than 20 of our people are dead. Some are still missing.

We have spent the past week digging each other out, hauling away wreckage, and holding onto each other. We want the rest of the country to understand the magnitude of what we are going through.

The water has awed us. The river has wrecked us. But this crisis has also created many small, beautiful moments. We are a little more caring now, and a little more aware that we are all in this together. Above all, we are thankful. Our city may be crippled, but we are more proud to live here than ever before. And we still love our river. After all, it has made us who we are.