Tennessee Mountain Stories

The 3 States of Tennessee


I’m really excited to share this week’s chapter of  Harry Lane’s “Tennessee Memories”.  Remember last week we learned that Mr. Lane studied both geography and geology. How fascinating to look at my home through the eyes of these scientific disciplines!  Culturally and historically, the western, middle and eastern portions of Tennessee are unique.  Turns out God laid it out that way.

The article is lengthy so I’m going to share excerpts here, mainly the description of the plateau. 

According to some folk, Tennessee is three states in one:  East, Middle, and West Tennessee.  These are often indicated to be the three Grand divisions of Tennessee.  The boundaries, like most boundaries, are somewhat arbitrary.

Nature has deal in larger numbers in dividing Tennessee into regions.  There are seven to ten natural regions in the state, depending upon the way one counts ‘em.  Here is the way we’ll count ‘em:  nine natural regions as follows, from east to west.

(1)    The Unaka Mountains (also known, more popularly, as the Blue Ridge).  The mountain area of easternmost Tennessee continues eastward into North Carolina, southward into Georgia, and northward into Virginia.  The highest portion of this mountain area is known as the Great Smoky Mountains, or simply the Smokies.  This area is not only the highest mountain mass in Tennessee and North Carolina, but also the highest of the eastern United States…

(2)    The Ridge and valley.  This section of the state consists of alternating ridges and valleys all oriented northeast – southwest.  Some of the ridges attain altitudes up to 2000 feet or so, while the valleys are generally hundreds of feet lower.  The valleys usually are underlain by limestone that produces rich soil and a productive agriculture… With the exception of forestry or grazing of livestock, the ridges are essentially unused for agriculture.

Many of Tennessee’s best-known cities and towns are located in the Ridge and Valley.  These include Knoxville, Chattanooga, Johnson City, Bristol, Kingsport, Morristown, Cleveland, Athens, Harriman, Oak Ridge, Rockwood, Dayton, Sweetwater, Etowah, Maryville, Lenoir City, and Loudon.

(3)    The Cumberland Plateau.  The only plateau in Tennessee, the Cumberland is a sandstone-capped highland that reaches above 2000 feet in its highest elevations.  In places nearly level, the Plateau crest is in many other places severely dissected by natural (geologic) erosion, and the terrain resembles hills or mountains more than it does one’s image of plateaus (which are usually depicted as smooth-surfaced uplands).  The Cumberland Plateau extends northward into Kentucky and southward into Alabama.  The plateau has a sandy soil that has proved relatively unproductive, as compared to soils in other parts of the states – such as the limestone-based soils of the Ridge and Valley or Central Basin.  The escarpments on the eastern and western sides of the Plateau also proved to be impediments to settlement and economic development, since accessibility has been hampered by these steep barriers.  Much wilderness persists here, as a consequence , and this has become a valuable commodity in recent decades, as an attraction to vacationers and retired persons, many of whom seek relief from urban settings in the peace of the Plateau.  A number of resorts and retirement communities have been established there to serve and attract such people.

Crossville, in Cumberland County, is the largest Plateau town.  Others of consequence include Jamestown, South Pittsburg, Oneida, and Monterey.

(4)    The Sequatchie Valley.  This interesting valley has been cut into a fold in the rocks of the Cumberland Plateau by the river that bears the same name, Sequatchie… One of the most scenic parts of the state of Tennessee, this valley is also agriculturally productive.  Pikeville and Dunlap are the towns of the valley.

(5)    The Highland Rim. The next territory westward from the Cumberland Plateau is the Highland Rim… Often… viewed as consisting of two parts, the Eastern and Western Highland Rims.  On the east, this province represents a bench-like or terrace-like area that emerges from the western escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau.  …Generally the Highland Rim is 200 to 300 feet higher than the Central Basin that it surrounds.  In places smooth, the Highland Rim is also hilly and irregular in many places – like so much of Tennessee…

There are many towns that are well-known to Tennesseans that are located on the Highland Rim.  Prominent among these are Clarksville, Cookeville, McMinnville, Sparta, Springfield, Tullahoma, Winchester, Hohenwald, Lawrenceburg, Dickson, Waverly, Savannah, Portland, Dover, and Ashland City.

(6)    The Central Basin.  This section of the state is one that was sought by white settlers soon after initial settlement had begun west of the Blue Ridge Mountains…The Basin has been called the “Tennessee Bluegrass” because of its resemblance to the rich Kentucky Bluegrass Basin to the north.

(7)    The Western Valley  of the Tennessee River.  This small region serves as a boundary between the Western Highland Rim and the Coastal Plain (or West Tennessee Plain).  This portion of the Tennessee Valley is quite interesting in the fact that the river has reversed its course from the southward-flowing stream that it is in the Ridge and Valley of eastern Tennessee.  Between the eastern and western segments, the Tennessee flows through a gorge that it has cut across the Cumberland Plateau (the segment of the plateau known as Walden Ridge), dipping far southward into Alabama  before it heads the opposite direction across Tennessee and Kentucky, finally emptying into the Ohio River near the mouth of the Cumberland River.  It is difficult to explain why the great river would do this, for much the shorter course to the sea lies southward through Alabama; the puzzle intrigues and troubles geologists who study the problem.

No large towns or cities belong strictly to the Western Valley…

(8)    The Coastal Plain, or West Tennessee Plain.  This portion of Tennessee belongs to a region that is vast, and which extends from Long Island, New York, to the Mexican border (and even beyond that)… the Atlantic-Gulf Coastal Plain…  The immediate valley of the Mississippi River, however, is usually considered separately from the Coastal Plain, and so it is in Tennessee…

The largest city of the state, Memphis, lies at the southwestern edge of this province.  Jackson, Dyersburg, Millington, Union City, Paris, Humboldt, Milan, Martin, Brownsville, and Camden are among the other towns and cities of the area.

(9)    The Mississippi Alluvial Valley.  This part of Tennessee is small – only about 900 square miles.  It is floodplain land of the Mississippi River…

There are few towns on the alluvial plain of the Mississippi.  This sparseness of towns probably is more the consequence of the small size of the whole region than of flood dangers or any negative factors.  Tiptonville and Ridgely belong to the Alluvial Valley.