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When is a River a Lake?

Pondering a 58-year-old riddle

by Jack Neely

Complete this sentence: the disgruntled columnist ran down to Volunteer Landing and jumped in the ——.

If you said river, your statement's unassailable. This body of water is, and always has been, a river. For the last decade or two, with "riverfront" developments, it has once again become fashionable to call it "the river."

If you said lake, well, you just might be employed with the News-Sentinel editorial staff. For half a century, it has been the daily's strict policy to call this "Ft. Loudoun Lake" even as far upstream as Forks of the River. Which, I suppose, should be renamed Forks of the Lake. Which happens to be over 50 miles upstream from Ft. Loudoun Dam.

Lately, the question has prompted some conversations that are embarrassing to overhear: "Lake? I thought it was the river." Others who've lived here for years still ask where the Tennessee River is. "But I thought that was Ft. Loudoun Lake," they say.

Our office Champion map of Knox County calls it "Tennessee River" in Knoxville, and "Fort Loudoun Lake" beginning in Concord. It doesn't really widen much beyond its old channel until it leaves Knoxville to the west.

Webster defines lake as "a considerable inland body of standing water." Maybe it can look like standing water when you're blowing by at 50 mph on Neyland Drive. Its current is often invisible on the surface, but it's there. A few years ago, working on a story about freight traffic, I asked a veteran towboat pilot, Capt. Don Carson, what he called it. He said he called it a river. I told him that many Knoxvillians call it a "lake," even in the downtown/UT area. That fact astonished him. At the helm of a towboat with a chain of barges, lake water and river water are very different things. He pointed at his map. "You don't get into lake water till you're down at Pellissippi Parkway," he said.

Remember the rubber duck races that authorities finally decided was illegal gambling? If this had been a true lake, with standing water, it would still be legal. The ducks wouldn't have raced anywhere. They would have remained bobbing languidly under the bridge.

I grew up in the '60s calling it "the lake." (When a schoolmate, whose father was a UT biologist from out of town, called it "the river," we snickered behind his back.) There's no question the dam had a big effect on the river, even this far upstream. The river through Knoxville was sometimes too shallow for navigation, depending on rains. Now it's permanently deep, and not just after the spring rains. We do have TVA and the dam system to thank for that. And maybe the existence of a dam an hour's drive away somehow transubstantiates our old river into a lake.

I thought I'd look back and try to sort it out. Of course, nobody ever called Knoxville's big brown pool of water a "lake" for the 200 years or so before the construction of Fort Loudoun Dam in 1943. But then, suddenly, the word became almost universally popular.

Maybe we just didn't like the word "river" then. Historian and poet Donald Davidson observed about that time that the Tennessee River itself was so unpredictable and troublesome it had a generally bad reputation. You get the impression that just pronouncing the name of it was bad luck.

By contrast, the very word lake may have become especially popular in 1940s America. It had a certain panache that made you think of swanky resorts: Lake Tahoe, Lake Como, Lake Placid. Maybe actress Veronica Lake, who was in her sultry prime in 1943, had something to do with it, too.

Maybe, in those early days, we were so proud of what technology can do for a river that we wanted to reflect that technology on every foot of the shoreline affected by it.

Our "lake" is named for Fort Loudoun, one of at least three British colonial forts by that same name; the one in Pennsylvania was the best known. You might look through more than one history of the French and Indian War before you find a reference to our particular Fort Loudoun. It was a weirdly tragic footnote of the war: not a battle between the combatants, it was a case of ally against ally. The Cherokee decided they didn't want Britain's imperial "protection," forced them out of the fort, and killed them.

In referring to the lake, many choose to leave the fort out of it altogether and call it "Loudoun Lake" or, more exotically, "Lake Loudoun." I think the practice was more common 30 or 40 years ago, but it inspired street names like Lake Loudoun Boulevard, which appeared on UT campus in the '60s.

The Loudoun whose name we evoke daily was a British aristocrat who never saw this fort, or, for that matter, any part of the Tennessee Valley. He was, properly, John Campbell, the Fourth Earl of Loudoun (1705-82). I've scoured the library trying to find something good to say about him, but I'm about to throw in the towel. He was a military man, but the general consensus is that, if only he hadn't been so incompetent, he might have been truly evil. He lost several battles trying to suppress Bonnie Prince Charlie's Scottish rebellion before coming to America in 1756 to lead the British campaign against the French and Indians. By some accounts, he was a lecher, a drunk, a glutton, a blasphemer, an idler, and a tyrant who believed Americans didn't have the rights of Englishmen. Ben Franklin called Loudoun's campaigns "frivolous, expensive, and disgraceful to our nation..."

Some charitable historians credit Loudoun's arrogance with giving Americans their first ideas of rebellion. William Pitt fired him in 1758, perhaps to save him from being tarred and feathered.

The naming was controversial for other reasons. Its original working title was Coulter Shoals Dam. I'm not sure where Coulter Shoals is; apparently some others weren't sure, either. Anyway, in 1940, a coalition of the DAR, Colonial Dames, and other genealogically correct associations prevailed upon TVA to rename it for Fort Loudoun.

It was, after all, East Tennessee's strongest claim to having a "colonial" history. But in 1940, it's safe to say that most East Tennesseans had never heard of the long-vanished fort. Newspaper articles taught us the unfamiliar, but correct, spelling of it.

That idea caused a revolt in Lenoir City. The biggest project in the town's history was suddenly being named for a historical site that wasn't even in their own county, one which most had never even visited. "There are not 10 people here who could take you to Ft. Loudoun," wrote one editorialist, claiming he wanted to prevent confusing tourists. Furthermore, they observed, Ft. Loudoun wasn't even on the Tennessee River; it was on the Little T. To historians who wanted to use a giant concrete monument to tout a colonial pedigree for East Tennessee, the fact that the dam was 20-odd miles away from the fort wasn't worth quibbling about.

"We have no desire to act contrary to the wishes of TVA in this matter," went the barely diplomatic editorial in the Lenoir City News. "Time will prove the inadvisability of naming the local project Ft. Loudoun. Until that time we feel sure local people will continue to call it the [emphasis theirs] Lenoir City Dam." The name of the dam was firm by the time it was finished in 1943. But it still left the issue of what we would call this old, somewhat altered body of water in Knoxville. "Could be that swirl in the rising, brown water under the Gay Street Bridge is making a big question mark," wrote one News-Sentinel columnist. "What are you going to call it now?"

The reporter called an unnamed TVA official, whose answer was simple. He allowed that while it was still a river, "We are going to call it a lake.... We are going to call it Ft. Loudoun Lake."

Lake sounded like a new and exciting concept in 1943. I might feel differently if we'd named it "Veronica Lake," but for now I'd prefer to take Capt. Carson's advice. A long, skinny lake with a strong current is a river, or close enough.

May 31, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 22
© 2001 Metro Pulse