Hunters and early settlers used canoes and small rafts as
a means of transportation on the Caney Fork before the adjacent country
was settled. The following act of the Tennessee Legislature is
probably the first official public action in connection with navigation.
James Phelan in his History of Tennessee states that lotteries were quite common. In 1826 lotteries were allowed for the benefit of Cumberland College, to improve navigation on the Forked Deer River, - - -to remove obstructions from Caney Fork and to encourage the manufacture of cotton in White County.
The crash of 1837 caused the State to withhold funds, for internal improvements. Then the introduction of railroads caused a loss of interest by the public in river navigation.
It may be noted that in January 1830 a Board of Internal Improvement was set up. In 1831 a board was set up for the Mountain District of Middle Tennessee and one for Caney Fork and one for Obed's River.
The Corps of Engineers made several reports and did some work on clearing obstructions to navigation on the Caney Fork. Reference is made to the following items.
Steam Boats on the Caney Fork
Steam boats operated on the Caney Fork to Sligo where warehouses were located and as far up as Franks Ferry, seven miles below The Great Falls. A few steamers even went on to the middle of the Horseshoe Bend. The traffic was important as many supplies were brought in by boat. With the coming of the railroads and particularly the Sparta Branch of the N. C. & St. L. Branch the river traffic slowed and finally stopped.
Boats had to use winch lines in a few areas to get over shoals when the river was low. There was quite a bit of traffic going down river on home-made flat boats used to ship local products to Nashville and even down the Cumberland and Mississippi.
Ab Carter, who lived at Silver Point about five miles East of the River, was probably the last operator of a commercial boat on the river. He was still operating a floating store, built on a flat boat powered by a gasoline engine. He went up as far as Sligo and down river as far as Buffalo Valley. Like the country peddler driving a horse drawn wagon Uncle Ab traded dry groceries and other items for chicken, eggs and other farm products. He had a profitable business. The farms in the river bottoms along the Caney Fork were good farms but even in 1925 & 1926 many of the roads were terrible. The writer chartered Uncle Ab's boat, slept and ate on it while installing river gauges.
Log Rafts on the Caney Fork
Many hundreds of log rafts have made the trip down the Caney Fork and Cumberland Rivers to the mills at Nashville. It has been reported that 90 rafts were taken down the river in 1929. Since the Center Hill Dam was constructed at mile 26.6 neither rafts or boats can make the trip.
Trees were felled, cut into logs and skidded to the top of the steep bluffs overlooking the river. They are dropped over a slide and rode to the bottom at the river's edge. There they were assembled in large rafts, tied together with chains and cable. In the old days they were fastened to each other with rope and saplings.
A lean-to was built on the raft and it was guided with long sweep oars and poles. The crew of 5 or 6 men had to wait for a good tide before starting down the river. About 6 feet of water was required to clear all the bars. Not every raft arrived at Nashville. Some were wrecked and broken up going around the treacherous bends in the river. It was hard work. Rafts were usually tied up at the bank at night. With a good pilot the trip took about six days. The writer remembers Everett Rowland of White County who took many rafts down river. He was probably one of the last to carry a raft to Nashville.
Navigation Reference - Steamboatin' on the Cumberland by Byrd Douglas is a fine book on the history of navigation, boats and men on the Cumberland River.