‘The Suck’ obliterated 110 years ago this week

Published 11:14 am Monday, October 23, 2023

One hundred and ten years ago this week, the most treacherous stretch of the Tennessee River was obliterated.

Before man-made dams existed, the Tennessee River was replete with navigational barriers. The most famous of these was the Muscle Shoals – a long, wide and shallow stretch of river in northwest Alabama.

However, I believe the most dangerous stretch of the river was a series of currents, eddies and boulders just downstream from present-day Chattanooga – the best known of which was called the Suck.

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According to early 19th century engineer Jacob Dumeste, the Suck was where the current narrowed and descended four and a half feet in 150 yards – a steep fall for a river so large. Boats heading upstream had almost no chance of passage. Crafts heading downstream were forced into the center of the current at high speed. Assuming they didn’t capsize, fast-moving boats would then whip through several obstacles, whirlpools and eddies which went by names such as the Frying Pan, the Boiling Pot and other titles. (However, the whole series of obstacles was often referred to simply as “the Suck.”)

The Suck was a reason the Chickamauga Indians had villages in this area between 1775 and 1795, when violence between Native Americans and settlers migrating west was commonplace. It was also a reason why the economic development of East Tennessee was stunted in the early 1800s. Since flatboats and keelboats couldn’t get through the Suck heading upstream, the Tennessee River was pretty much a one-way highway as far as Knoxville was concerned. And even after steamboats were familiar sights on the Mississippi and Cumberland Rivers, it was still almost impossible to get a fully loaded steamboat upstream through the Suck. (A boat called the Atlas pulled it off in 1828, but it was not carrying cargo at the time, and it was the exception to the rule.)

In fact, the Suck was a major reason Knox County was ranked thirteenth in population among Tennessee counties in 1830. At that time, Knox had less inhabitants than Smith and Warren.

The federal government tried to alleviate the problem of the Suck by creating a crude system of cables, attached to boulders, to help pull boats upstream. However, the Suck was still the subject of numerous legends and stories. In the late 1850s, Harper’s Magazine ran a story about a group of boatmen who tried to pilot a flatboat downstream through the Suck after dark. They thought they had made it through when they saw a group of people playing music and dancing near the bank of the river. A few minutes later they passed another group of people playing music and dancing. Then they passed a third. “Do the people along this river mostly spend their nights fiddlin’ and dancin’?” one of the boatmen asked another. After they passed the ninth group of people singing and dancing, they were convinced that they were drunk. However, they later realized that the current was sending the boat in a big circle and that they were passing the same place over and over.

If you want any more proof of the importance of the Suck, you need look no further than the great Johnny Cash. Cash, who for some reason knew a lot about the history of southeast Tennessee, wrote a song called “The Whirl and the Suck,” which you can see him perform on YouTube. Among its lyrics:

It took a mighty good man with salty hands
And a mighty long raft to keep the fore before the aft
You take ten good men with guts and luck
And you might navigate the whirl and the suck

I first learned about the Suck a long time ago, but over the years became curious about exactly when the stretch of water was permanently flooded. I’ve always assumed that TVA got rid of the Suck in the 1930s, but I was wrong about that.

You see, in 1905 a private company called the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company began building Hales Bar Dam on the Tennessee River a few miles downstream from the Suck. Its purposes were to generate electricity and get rid of the treacherous barriers to navigation just downstream from Chattanooga.

Hales Bar Dam took three general contractors and eight years to complete. There were actual race riots among construction workers at a notorious workers village called – I’m not making this up – Sucktown.

After eight long years, the dam was completed, and the waters above the dam began to rise. On or about October 22, 1913, people who lived near the Suck went to bed one night with the familiar sound of rushing water in their ears. When they woke up, the sound was gone.

“No more is the famous ‘Suck,’ that terror of the river craftsman who has for all the years past sought to pilot his boat through the straits and among the rocks of the narrows without foundering thereon,” the Chattanooga Daily Times reported the next day.

The Suck hasn’t been heard from since.

Bill Carey is the executive director of Tennessee History for Kids, a non-profit organization that helps teachers teach Tennessee history and civics (www.tnhistoryforkids.org).