Gentle thrills on the historic Sequatchie River

The Sequatchie River in Southeast Tennessee offers family-friendly paddling opportunities and the opportunity to enjoy the Sequatchie Valley's breathtaking landscape by water. (Photo: Sequatchie County Chamber of Commerce)

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

The Sequatchie River flows through 70 miles of the Sequatchie Valley, the long and narrow divide between the Cumberland Plateau and Walden’s Ridge. Throughout time, the river has played a major role in the cultural and natural history of the Sequatchie Valley. Today, this historic waterway offers slow and easy paddling opportunities, as well as the chance to enjoy the Sequatchie Valley’s breathtaking landscape by water.

The Sequatchie River begins and ends in the valley. Its headwaters originate in the valley of Grassy Cove just east of Crossville and drain through a series of mysterious underground passages for 8-10 miles. The river emerges from the head of the Sequatchie Spring in Cumberland County, part of the Cumberland Trail State Park, winds through the scenic valley, then empties into the Guntersville Lake impoundment of the Tennessee River. Each month, Friends of the Cumberland Trail sponsors an open day at the head of the Sequatchie site in order to introduce visitors to this unique site.

John Currahee on his blog, Chenocetah’s Weblog, which delves into the origins and meanings of Cherokee-derived place names in the southeastern United States, references the thinking of American ethnographer James Mooney about the origin of the name “Sequatchie.” Mooney though that the river, and therefore the valley, was named after the Cherokee community of Sigwetsi, a former settlement located on the south bank of the French Broad River near Knoxville-where, reportedly, stone for white peace pipes was quarried.

A trail developed to the west of Sigwetsi, through what is now Kingston, Tenn., that led to the Sequatchie Valley. The route became informally known as “the Sequatchie Road.” Mooney’s best approximation of the meaning of the name is “Opossum Place.”

Remnants from early Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian communities remain within the landscape, including burial mounds, relics and recent cave art discoveries. Lands in the Sequatchie Valley belonged to the Cherokee Nation for generations; Cherokee fish traps (called fish weirs) are reportedly visible during times of low water.

In the 18th century, settlers began moving into the valley. A critical battle was fought between Native Americans and settlers near the base of the Sequatchie River in the late 1700s, which destroyed Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe’s villages of Nickajack and Running Water near Chattanooga. Land cessations began in the late 1700s and early 1800s until the Cherokee Removal of 1838.

The Civil War also played out along the riverbanks of the Sequatchie River. In October 1863, Confederate Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler led a cavalry raid against a Union supply train that was attempting to relieve besieged Federal troops at Chattanooga. Wheeler burned an estimated 1,000 wagons and captured livestock in the battle known today as Wheeler’s Raid.

Early industries consisted of gristmills on the Sequatchie River. One of the earliest mills was built by Norman Mansfield in the 1850s near present-day Highway 127. Residents brought their wheat and corn by horse or wagon to be ground into flour or meal.

The Sequatchie River has been, and continues to be, the water source used for the Dunlap Water System. Water is drawn from the river east of Dunlap off Old York Highway.

Paddling through history
Scott Pilkington is the former owner of Canoe the Sequatchie, which operated along the Sequatchie River for 34 years until closing in 2011 after Pilkington suffered a back injury. His launch site is located at the intersection of U.S. 127 and John Burch Road in Dunlap.

“The Sequatchie River is a beautiful river with gentle thrills,” Pilkington said. “There are two Class II areas, and the rest of it is Class I or slower with flat currents.”

According to Pilkington, a small number of access points throughout the Sequatchie Valley allow for family-friendly paddling trips on the Sequatchie River:

-A 3-mile paddle trip begins at an access point near the Sequatchie County Courthouse in Dunlap and ends at the Old York Highway Bridge on Highway 127.

-A 4-mile paddle trip begins at the Old York Highway Bridge on Highway 127 and ends at the Stove Cave Road Bridge.

-A 6-mile paddle trip begins at the Old York Highway Bridge on Highway 127 and ends at the Frank Tate Road Bridge.

“Except in one or two places, major roads do not touch the river,” Pilkington said. “Our launch site at the Old York Highway Bridge on Highway 127 is in the middle of the most canoe-able section of the river through midsummer.”

Pilkington said his grandson, a college student, will likely reopen the Canoe the Sequatchie business this summer; however, that is not set in stone. However, if so, in addition to canoe rentals, he expects that fees will be charged to park at the Old York Highway Bridge on Highway 127.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-based writer and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog at