If you were to go there today, what you would find is something far different from the place I knew growing up. The community on the Tennessee River is known by a name going back to the days of the settlers, Suck Creek.
If you are unfamiliar with this small section on the Tennessee River just outside of downtown Chattanooga, you may think the name is funny. However, the “suck” or “kettle” was a whirlpool formed by the water from Suck Creek flowing rapidly into the river. It was a serious obstacle to maritime travel.
My paternal great grandfather, along with his sons, hoboed a train out of Rainbow City, Alabama, and wound up in Tennessee. When he first got here, he went to work in the mountain above Suck Creek as a logger. From what I’ve been told, they didn’t have much and even slept in tents.
But sometime in the 1940’s my great grandfather and my grandfather built my grandparents’ house. It was small, but so well-built you could probably roll it down a hill and it would stay intact! They constructed it out of wood they milled themselves, all true 2×4’s and tongue-in-groove pine. The pine was so hard that when my dad tried to do some remodeling, the saw blades got stuck or broke!
The house that my grandfather built – the one in which my grandmother, my dad, and my uncle would live, too – was in a spot looking down into the Tennessee River Gorge (or Cash Canyon) and right above Suck Creek.
Below is a painting I just finished today. It’s a view of the river as might be seen from the front yard of our house. All I did was leave out houses and “progress” and imagined what it might have looked like 150 years ago.
The Whirlpool and Early-American History
But getting back to the story of the whirlpool, most people are unaware of how in 1780 it temporarily trapped the Donelson party. You see, in 1779 John Donelson (co-founder of Nashville) took a large party of settlers in a group of flatboats down the Tennessee River. They were heading to Fort Nashborough on the Cumberland River. But all along the way they were harassed by Cherokee and Chickasaw.
When the Donalson part reached the place where Suck Creek flowed into the Tennessee River, the flat on which Donelson and his family traveled became stuck in the whirlpool. This meant that they became stationary targets, and the result was one death, besides other injuries. The following quote is from an extensive article in Wikipedia.
“Several miles downriver, beginning with the obstruction known as the Suck or the Kettle, the party was fired upon throughout their passage through the Tennessee River Gorge (Cash Canyon); one person died and several were wounded.”Wikipedia
Skip forward 70-80 years to the Civil War era. Photos and etchings exist of steam-powered paddle-wheelers being tethered to ropes and winched (warped) close to the riverbank in order to avoid the powerful whirlpool.
So, what about Suck Creek these days? Well, to begin with, back in the early 1900’s the government began constructing hydro-electric power dams along the river. These dams raised the water levels of the river just enough to negate the whirlpool and make river travel easier. However, whenever there are torrential rains that cause the creek to swell and flow rapidly into the river, a whirlpool does form, only not as powerful.
And as to how it’s changed since I grew up there? Let’s just say that the old homesteads and property along the river that once belonged to my relatives is no more. Gone are the old shacks. Gone are the front porches where folk would sit and play guitars and banjoes. Gone are the remnants of the long-abandoned moonshine stills. Now all you will find are million-dollar homes, boat docks, and a view that still beats most I’ve ever seen.
Oh, and the old house where I grew up is actually still there! One of my cousins owns it and refuses to sell, even though he’s been offered enough to live comfortably for a long time.
Sometimes a view is worth more than all the money in the world.
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