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Tenn-Tom Cruising Guide
An excerpt from
A Cruising Guide to the Tennessee River,
Tenn-Tom Waterway, and Lower Tombigbee River

by Marian, Thomas W., and W.J. Rumsey
Buy this book at Amazon Books.  We did!
Check out
anchorAnchorages on Guntersville Lakeanchor
for a map with links to descriptions and maps from the above book.

Guntersville Lake is one of the most stable of the TVA reservoirs; at the dam there is only about a 2-foot difference between normal minimum and maximum pool.  This 75.6-mile-long lake has 949 miles of shoreline and a storage capacity of 1,018,000 acre-feet. Exploration for the site of this dam and lock began in 1935, but it did not open for navigation until January 1939.  Because of this project, 1,182 families were relocated, and more than 88 miles of highway, 5.7 miles of railroad, and 44 bridges were affected.  Eventually the need arose for a larger chamber capacity, and the main lock opened in 1965 after more than two years of construction.

When you enter Guntersville Lake you can't help but notice the size of the hills.  The Appalachians to the southeast and the Cumberlands to the northwest rise 1,000 feet above the lake.  This is the southernmost point of the Great Bend of the Tennessee River, which now begins to bear steadily to the northeast.

Keep in mind that Guntersville Lake is not a deep reservoir.  When leaving the maintained channel, especially after the first 10 miles, it is necessary to sound carefully.  Submerged islands are not well covered, and there are sandy shoals and dangerous, rocky reefs.

Because this lake has less depth off the channel, and the difference between winter and summer pool is so slight, the lake's warmer water is stagnant and subject to weed growth.  During high-water stage milfoil sometimes clogs the turbine intakes, causing brief closures at the powerhouse.  In the 1960s the lake was held 1 foot below normal minimum winter pool and given a chemical treatment, but the weed problem has not been solved.  Hydrilla is the aquatic plant under scrutiny now.  The TVA may introduce grass carp which have a keen appetite for the plant into the lake; it is hoped that the carp will mitigate, if not eradicate, this relatively newly introduced weed.

On the northern shore near Honeycomb Light #350.4, you can see one of the area's many large caves.  This particular one has been fenced to keep out the curious; it is home to the endangered gray bat, which cannot survive when disturbed by man.

Just across the mouth of Honeycomb Creek is wooded Goat Island, where just before the Civil War a local farmer let his goats roam free.  During the hostilities the herd was an easily captured source of food.

Before the lake was filled, the narrow riverbed was along the northern shore.  On the southern bank, across from imposing Fort Deposit Point at Mile TN-352.6, is the site of old Fort Deposit.  After the Fort Mims Massacre, General Andrew Jackson and an army of about 2,500 started south to put an end to the Red Stick warriors.  Jackson and his troops crossed the Tennessee River downstream near Ditto Landing, where they met up with the advance force of Colonel Coffee and Davy Crockett and their militia.  This imposing army then proceeded upriver and made this area a major supply base.  Before continuing on south from the fort, Jackson recruited nearly 200 local Cherokees to help him fight their mutual enemy, the Creeks.

Fort Deposit had only one or two small log buildings.  Its main attribute was its proximity to a number of caves, used to store supplies and ammunition, the largest of which was on the northern shore and reached by a ferry that ran from the fort.  Watch carefully as you pass about 200 yards from Deposit Light #352.6 and you will see, cut into the limestone cliff, an inscription commemorating General Andrew Jackson.  This 1914 marker, which is about 7 inches high and 4 inches deep, is placed almost directly above the entrance to now-submerged Jackson's Cave.

Just around the bend wooded islands dot the northern shore.  Across the river is Beard's Bluff, which, according to the Cherokees, was the Shawnee's main village when they were in residence in the mid-1600s.  In the 1700s the Shawnee had moved on, and the area became known as Cherokee Bluff—the location of a Cherokee fort and the scene of bloody battles between the Cherokees and the Creeks.

This is the widest part of Guntersville Reservoir.  To the southeast is the small, charming city of Guntersville.  When the lake was filled in 1939 the city was left on a high peninsula, bordered by the waters of Browns Creek to the west, Spring Creek to the east, and the Tennessee River to the north.  The channel bears to the east under the long, twin Houston Bridge and causeway.  If you want to visit Guntersville, bear to the south into Spring Creek.


Guntersville was named for John Gunter, who arrived in the area in the late 1700’s.  He had been kidnapped by Indians as a child in North Carolina, and when he finally escaped he took refuge here with the Cherokees.  Eventually he married the daughter of a chief of the Paint Clan.  Gunter settled near what is now the southern approach to the Houston Bridge, on what is called Kusa-Nunnahi, or the Creek Path.  This was just one of a number of Indian trails in this area, some of which led west to Muscle Shoals, south to the Coosa River, and upstream to Crowtown and the Great War Path.  Gunter’s settlement grew quickly because of his good relations with the Indians, the accessible, well-traveled Indian trails, and river trade.  By 1818 Edward Gunter, one of John’s sons, had established a ferry on the river.  The settlement became known as Gunter's Ferry, then Gunter's Village, and at last Guntersville.

The river port, Gunter's Landing, was used by flatboats loaded with corn, supplies, merchandise, and whiskey.  Flatboats coming downriver transferred cargoes to wagons, which then went overland to Tuscaloosa and into Talladega County. These boats often tied up for nearly a half-mile along the riverbank and up to four or five boats deep at the ferry landing.

In the 1820s John Gunter Jr. opened a store; there were also warehouses, a cotton gin, landing piers, and a few homes, all near the present day (Chamber of Commerce).

When the Creeks and the Cherokees ceded the last of their lands to the United States they were required to move west into reservations, most of which were in Oklahoma.  Gunter's Landing had always had good relations with the Indians, especially with the Cherokees, so it is ironic that the village was one of three ports used to relocate Indians by water.  The largest group to leave the area, 2,000 Creeks from the surrounding counties, went overland, however.  They were marched to Fort Deposit, where they crossed the river at the ferry and proceeded on foot to Huntsville, Memphis, and finally Oklahoma.  In 1837 nearly 500 Cherokees arrived at Gunter's Landing from upstream on 11 crowded flatboats.  Then, more than 500 Creeks arrived and left the landing on nine flatboats.  Still more Cherokees were forced to leave within the next year.  Will Rogers' great grandmother, a Cherokee, was relocated from Gunter's Landing.

Nearly all of them were required to leave their property behind, and because of the crowded conditions, improper facilities, and poor food, many died along the way. It truly was a Trail of Tears.  Many of their relatives have since come back to the area to try to locate belongings buried by their ancestors before they left their homes and land.

The first steamboat, the Atlas, arrived at Gunter's Landing in 1828, and not long after, the larger Knoxville began a scheduled run between Guntersville and her namesake town.  During low-water periods, the river was so filled with shoals that it was barely navigable.  It was not until the late 1800s that the federal government financed a program to dredge a channel on one of the more persistent shoals at Beards Reef, near the bluff.  For most of the year however, transit was made possible by large paddlewheelers, which became more common as cotton became a major export crop.  By the late 1800s Guntersville had a population of only about 700, but it did a quarter of a million dollars of business annually.  An average of 6,500 bales of cotton changed hands each year, but not all the commerce was in cotton; another large industry included shipping hardwood to supply the Huntsville Spoke and Handle Factory.

During the early days of the Civil War, the Union army, entrenched on the northern side of the river at Guntersville Bluff, shelled the town for nearly 11 hours.  There were other engagements a few years later, and a major skirmish was instigated by Union general John White Geary.  Geary had a large force traveling the river by steamboat, shelling whatever might threaten the Federals.  When the Confederates near Guntersville fired on them, Geary retaliated by bombarding the village.  It was near the end of the war that Guntersville suffered its worst damage, however.  Union marines from a gunboat burned the town and left only a few buildings standing.

In the late 1800s an incline railway was built for the busy railroad ferry, which took freight cars 22 miles downstream to Hobbs Island, a major port for Huntsville.  The steamer Hattie McDaniel brought in an empty railroad transfer barge, a locomotive backed its cars down the incline onto the barge, and the paddlewheeler pushed the cargo to its destination.  Today you will see a large Danger buoy at Guntersville Marina, not far to the east of the harbor breakwater.  This marks the old ferry railroad track, submerged now that the lake is impounded.

In the 1800s Guntersville was considered as a possible site for a canal that would connect the Tennessee River with the Gulf of Mexico.  The Guntersville and Gadsden Canal was first surveyed in 1871.  This was to be a 50-mile section with locks and dams that would connect the Tennessee with the Coosa River at Gadsden, to the south.  The Coosa in turn joins the Alabama River, which flows on to Mobile.  Later, yet another way of reaching the Gulf was considered: impounding the headwaters of Locust Fork on the Black Warrior River, about 20 miles from Guntersville's Spring Creek, to access Port Birmingham.  From there the route would have gone down the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile.  But these plans were not thought sufficiently practical to be pursued.

Houston Bridge, built in 1930 to connect the town with the northern shore, was named for a Reconstruction-era senator and governor.  Built at a cost of more than $354,000, it was for a long time a toll bridge, and therefore very unpopular.  Eventually the charge was waived for the locals, and only outsiders were charged.  Today the bridge is free to everyone.  When it was constructed, no one knew that the Guntersville Dam would be built, so when the lake was filled the TVA faced a bridge problem.  Because of the high smokestacks of the 1930s commercial vessels, the bridge had to be raised 17 feet to provide clearance.  This work was completed in a record time of 71 days.  Beneath the old bridge, the 17-foot addition is still visible.

Before the reservoir was filled there was substantial archeological activity in the bridge area.  Research and excavations on Henry and McKee Islands, both prominent in early Indian history, had to be finished before the islands were covered by the rising lake.  Henry Island's western end was nearly under the bridge and extended upstream 3 miles.  Two villages there were examined by archaeologists, and artifacts showed long Indian occupancy.  Brass uniform buttons bearing the U.S. coat of arms also were uncovered, suggesting the presence of Yankee soldiers.  At another site near the upstream end of the island, an old village and two mounds were found.  The larger mound contained more than six dwelling levels; each group of people had built directly on the remains of the earlier inhabitants.

McKees Island, about three-quarters of a mile long, was just upstream of the bridge.  It is thought to be the site of Tali, one of the Indian villages along the river that was visited by Hernando de Soto in 1540.

As the sailing line bears upstream, you will pass Buck Island on the northern bank.  Before Guntersville Dam was constructed there was some controversy as to where the dam should be built.  Two sites were considered by the TVA, one here, near Buck Island, and another at Coles Bend, where it was finally built.

During the Civil War, in December 1863, the bushwhacker Ben Harris and his band of guerrillas came into Guntersville.  During the raid four civilians and one Confederate soldier, who was home on furlough, fled to Buck Island.  Though the five men hid in the island's dense cane, which in those days grew up to 30 feet high, Harris, his men, and a cavalry squadron managed to find them all.  After the prisoners were forced to ferry a herd of cattle across the river, Harris lined them up and shot each man through the heart.  The soldier managed to fall just as Harris fired, and the bullet struck a rib and glanced off.  Though he was not badly injured, he pretended to be dead.  Harris and his band threw the bodies into the river, and the cold water made the soldier gasp.  The bushwhackers made a futile attempt to spear him with a saber, but the soldier swam downstream underwater, surviving his ordeal by waiting in the freezing water until the bushwhackers had left.

On the southern shore at Mile TN-361.0 is the entrance to Short Creek.  After the Civil War the U.S. government and individual states renewed their hopes of major canal development.  The goal was to connect river systems to make possible through-water transportation from inland America to the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard.  They were grandiose plans, but it was believed that these waterways would provide an alternative to the enormous costs associated with railroad transport, while also helping to curb railroad monopolies.  In the Short Creek area plans were discussed in the 1870s for the Atlantic and Great Western Canal, a system of canals and rivers that would connect all of the major navigable interior rivers, including the Tennessee, with the Atlantic Coast. Short Creek would have ended in a canal that crossed Sand Mountain to the Coosa River.  Next the route would have gone up the Coosa to Rome in Georgia, then up the Etowah and Little Rivers, back into a canal across the Chattahoochee Plateau, down the Yellow and Ocmulgee Rivers to Macon, Georgia, and finally down the Altahmah to the Atlantic.  This project would have benefited Guntersville immensely, since it was already a major river terminal where grains grown in interior America were transferred from barges to railroad cars for shipment to the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf.  As with most of the early projects, however, funds were never found to finance such a tremendous undertaking.

As you continue upstream you will notice the mountains on the western shore near Mile TN-362.0.  Lake Guntersville State Park and lodge is here on a 500-foot-high bluff, with a beautiful view of the lake.  The lodge offers rooms, suites, chalets, and cabins.  There is golf, a game room, a gift shop, an art gallery, a pool, a coffee shop, and a dining room.  You can safely leave the boat for a few days at a marina in Guntersville.

Upstream for the next few miles you will pass Pine Island.  Now submerged, the island was the location of an old Creek Indian crossing.

Just upstream, on the southeastern shore near Mile TN-373.0, is the entrance to South Sauty Creek.  It is not navigable much beyond the low-level bridge.  About 8.5 miles up the South Sauty is a beautiful, 800-foot-deep canyon at about the junction of De Kalb, Jackson, and Marshall counties.  The area is now 2,000-acre Buck's Pocket State Park, but it once sheltered Indians in overhanging cliffs during the winter.  The canyon floor is dotted with underground water caves, where during the valley's very dry seasons, South Sauty Creek goes underground.

Farther upstream on the Tennessee, near Mile TN-377.0, is the entrance of North Sauty Creek, and about 3 miles upstream beyond the low-level bridge at Backbone Ridge is Saltpeter Cave.  This cave was probably once inhabited by Indians; later it served as the seat of government when Jackson County was formed and the courthouse was being built.  During the Civil War the Confederates mined the saltpeter, which they used to produce gunpowder.  For many years a few rails of the old mule tramway and a large iron kettle the soldiers used to refine saltpeter could still be seen.

anchorAnchorages on Guntersville Lakeanchor
For more on the history of the Guntersville area visit the Guntersville Museum and Cultural Center.