Nolichucky River

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Nolichucky River
Nolichucky River.jpg
The Nolichucky River at Embreeville in Washington County, Tennessee
Country United States
States North Carolina, Tennessee
Counties Yancey NC, Mitchell NC, Unicoi TN, Washington TN, Greene TN, Hamblen TN, Cocke TN
Source North Toe River [1]
 - location Avery County, NC
 - elevation 4,280 ft (1,305 m)
 - coordinates 36°07′47″N 81°53′13″W / 36.12972°N 81.88694°W / 36.12972; -81.88694
Secondary source Cane River [2]
 - location Yancey County, NC
 - elevation 3,533 ft (1,077 m)
 - coordinates 35°45′55″N 82°18′33″W / 35.76528°N 82.30917°W / 35.76528; -82.30917
Source confluence
 - location Yancey County, NC
 - elevation 2,021 ft (616 m)
 - coordinates 36°01′44″N 82°19′37″W / 36.02889°N 82.32694°W / 36.02889; -82.32694
Mouth French Broad River [3]
 - location Cocke Tennessee, TN
 - elevation 1,001 ft (305 m)
 - coordinates 36°04′55″N 83°13′45″W / 36.08194°N 83.22917°W / 36.08194; -83.22917Coordinates: 36°04′55″N 83°13′45″W / 36.08194°N 83.22917°W / 36.08194; -83.22917
The Nolichucky drainage basin, located within the upper Tennessee drainage basin

The Nolichucky River is a major stream draining the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, including Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern United States. The river is 115 miles (185 km) long.[4]


The Nolichucky River rises as the confluence of the North Toe River and the Cane River near the community of Huntdale, North Carolina. The stream succeeds the North Toe as the boundary between Yancey County and Mitchell County, North Carolina. Trending roughly westward, it flows along the north flank of Flattop Mountain. The gorge is especially steep on its north side. Geologically, the area is predominantly underlain by metamorphic rock of Precambrian age.

The Nolichucky, approaching Erwin, Tennessee from the east, as seen from the Appalachian Trail just south of Erwin

The river then enters Unicoi County, Tennessee as it drops through a whitewater gorge, flowing through ranges of the Bald Mountains and the Unaka Mountains. Turning northwest, the stream is bridged by the Appalachian Trail, and then, just beyond this, by U.S. Highway 19W southwest of Erwin, Tennessee. Near Erwin, two tributary streams, South Indian Creek and North Indian Creek, join the Nolichucky River. Turning more to the north, the stream is paralleled for several miles by State Route 81, (which is also concurrent with Tennessee 107 for several miles) crossing into Washington County. The river cuts between several mountains at this point, including Rich Mountain to the south and Buffalo Mountain to the north.

Shortly after entering Washington County, the river makes a horseshoe bend near Embreeville, where it is bridged by Tennessee 81 and Tennessee 107 for the first time. At the northeastern end of Embreeville Mountain, the stream emerges from a large gap, and, turning west-southwest, is bridged by Tennessee 81 again. This region is known as the Ridge and Valley province, underlain primarily by sedimentary rock of the Lower Paleozoic Era. The river then continues west-southwest for several miles, paralleled by State Route 107. The river leaves the roadside near Mt. Carmel. From there it flows northwest over a curving course to Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park near the Washington County–Greene County line. Many tributary creeks join the river in Washington and Greene Counties. At the county line one of the larger tributaries, Big Limestone Creek, joins the river. State Route 351 crosses the river west of Crockett's birthplace.

From Crockett's birthplace the river flows southwestward, following the trends of the Ridge and Valley province's underlying geology. Bridged by Tennessee 107 again just east of Tusculum, the stream continues southwestward, later bridged by State Route 350 just above an impoundment caused by Nolichucky Dam. This dam was constructed as a hydroelectric project by the former Tennessee Electric Power Company in 1912. The dam was sold to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1939. The TVA continued to operate the dam for electrical power purposes until the 1970s. The degree of siltation of the reservoir, called Davy Crockett Lake, had made continued efforts to operate the facility for hydroelectric purposes impracticable. The agency retired the dam as a power source but continues to maintain it and to use it for flood control and recreational purposes. Just west of the dam it cross State Route 70 and Tennessee 107 for a third and final time.

The stream then flows almost due west and is then bridged by U.S. Highway 321. Just before the Greene County–Cocke County line the river is bridged by State Route 340. Shortly below this point, the river becomes the Greene County–Cocke County line. A few miles below this point it is bridged by Knob Creek Road, a Cocke County road. Slightly south of Interstate 81, Greene County, Cocke County, and Hamblen County come to a point at a bend in river, where Lick Creek joins the river. From this point on, the meandering stream forms the Hamblen County–Cocke County line.

The confluence of the Nolichucky with the French Broad River occurs in the upstream portion of the Douglas Lake impoundment, caused by Douglas Dam, a World War II-era TVA project. This area, which the locals call 'Herndons Point' is in Jefferson County in a community named Leadvale. Near the mouth is the Rankin Wildlife Management Area, a reserve operated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.


While the origins of the name-place have long been debated and remain unclear, it is believed to come from a distortion of the nearby Cherokee village resting around present day Jonesborough, TN called (roughly) Na’na-tlu gun’yi, which has been interpreted “Spruce-Tree Place.”[5] Others argue that, according to local lore, it actually means "Rushing Water(s)",[6] "Dangerous Water(s)", or "Black Swirling Water". Local river guides sometimes insist upon the menacing "River of Death", although that name is actually associated with the Chickamauga (which also happens to be a contested name-place itself). Perhaps the 'true' meaning remains elusive, yet the river's life-nourishing stream has established itself again as a sacred space, demanding reverence for its awesome power.

Although the Nolichucky is considered to be a fairly famous and historic stream in Tennessee, most of its history has been largely forgotten, even since European-American frontiersman began moving into the territory during the late 18th century to establish the region's first independent, democratic European settlement featuring executive, legislative, and judicial officials (known as the Watauga Association) amid the Nolichucky, Watauga, and Holston River Valleys just before (and in some ways instigating) the beginning of the American Revolution. Up until that time, for thousands of years (at least 8 and likely 10+), Native Americans inhabited along the banks and in the surrounding woodlands - most notably and recently the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

"In 1776, militiamen built Fort Lee near the confluence of the Big Limestone Creek and the Nolichucky River. Future Tennessee Governor ["Nolichucky Jack"] John Sevier, then a lieutenant, was in charge of constructing and garrisoning the fort, built to defend the frontier settlers of Upper East Tennessee (then North Carolina) against an invading [Lower] Cherokee [see Chickamauga] army [led by Dragging Canoe] during the Revolutionary War... The Cherokees burned Fort Lee in July 1776. The site of the fort is believed to be in the vicinity of the David Crockett Birthplace State Park... the park preserves the site of the original farm of John Crockett; his son David (aka Davy Crockett) was born at this property in 1786."[7]

The turn of the century brought trains hauling passengers (until 1955) and mostly coal on the Clinchfield Railroad (now operated by CSX), which still runs alongside the river through the gorge with bridged crossings at Unaka Springs (Erwin, TN) and Poplar, NC. At least one sunken railcar sits at the bottom of the river near the entrance to the Lost Cove Settlement, a civil-war era ghost town just upriver (and uphill) from the once-disputed Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Influence of weather[edit]

Between Poplar, North Carolina, and Unaka Springs, Tennessee, the Nolichucky River Gorge provides one of the more scenic and technical whitewater trips in the Southern United States, due in large part to its constant (and often rapid) fluctuations.[8]

The naturally flowing Nolichucky River is a popular whitewater rafting and canoeing destination having stretches of both whitewater areas and calm water. Rainfall upstream around Mt. Mitchell makes the upper section rapids ever more impressive with significant rain causing extremely big water and un-runnable routes in otherwise ordinary areas.

"Frank Gentry describes such a trip through the gorge with Bob Lawson on a rubber raft. Frank says, 'I just went along for the ride and a look at the scenery. Man-a-live, I didn't have time to look at anything! When that raft hit those rapids at "Rooster Tail" we were going round and round, dived into "Souse Hole", slammed into rocks here and more rocks there. Seemed like the harder you paddled the more rocks you'd hit. You'd just whirl and twirl and wham into more big boulders you hadn't even seen. Sometimes that white-faced water would stand straight up and slam you smack-kadab all over the raft, or out of it. Man, that was a wild trip!"[9]

Inversely, a lack of adequate rainfall through the summer considerably raises the difficulty of running the already technically challenging rapids while revealing a diverse range of usually underwater features. Seasonal droughts can make rafting trips inadvisable or simply impassable (nothing's impossible), prompting local rafting companies in Unicoi County to sometimes divert whitewater river trips to the Watauga River running through Elizabethton, Tennessee in Carter County. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) regulates flow of the Watauga River guarantees a minimum release schedule accommodating whitewater rafting companies during the summer season with the regular release of deep, impounded reservoir waters from behind both the TVA Watauga Dam and the TVA Wilbur Dam.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: North Toe River
  2. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Cane River
  3. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Nolichucky River
  4. ^ "The National Map". U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved Feb 14, 2011. 
  5. ^ Mooney, James (1900). History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. Fairview, NC: Bright Mountain Books. p. 527. ISBN 9780914875192. 
  6. ^ Sakowski, Carolyn (2007). Touring the East Tennessee Backroads (2nd ed.). Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair. p. 63. ISBN 9780895873507. 
  7. ^ "The Transformation of the Nolichucky Valley, 1776-1960." National Register of Historic Places -
  8. ^
  9. ^ Alderman, Pat (1975). Greasy Cove in Unicoi County: Authentic Folklore. p. 26. ISBN 0932807038
  10. ^ Nolichucky: High water temporarily strands campers; rafting company expects boon in business.

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