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Jellies: Living Art

Jellies Living Art
Jellies capture the imagination as they pulse inside specially designed displays next to striking studio glass. Experience the beauty of this unique new gallery.

River Gorge Explorer

Tour Highlights and Descriptions

Welcome aboard the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer!

Cruising to Connect with Nature and History
Chattanooga has always been a community tied to the river running through it.  When the Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992, the “Renaissance on the River” began as the city embraced the waterfront which has been the cradle of civilization here for thousands of years. Historical vignettes, tracing that history in bas-relief, are part of the Aquarium’s exterior motif. These 53 engraved medallions tell the story of man’s connection to the Tennessee River. This new adventure on the river will help bring some of those stories to life, while at the same time re-emphasizing the importance of fresh water in our lives, and the Aquarium’s mission to “inspire wonder and appreciation for the natural world.”

Tracing History from Downtown to Downstream
The River Gorge Explorer departs from the Chattanooga Pier virtually right behind the Tennessee Aquarium. Looking upstream one will be able to see the Market Street Bridge, Walnut Street Bridge and Maclellan Island.

  • Archaeological digs by the University of Tennessee Chattanooga on Maclellan Island have unearthed evidence of man's history here dating back some 10 to 12,000 years.  Some recent evidence suggests that date could be pushed back to around 15,000 years ago.
  • The Cherokee knew the Tennessee River as Yu nwi Gunahita, the Long Man.  This giant had his head in the foothills and his feet down in the lowlands. In Cherokee rituals, the Long Man holds all things in his hands, pressing relentlessly forward, never stopping, bearing all before him. The Cherokee believed the Long Man spoke in murmurs which only the priest could interpret. The Cherokee always chose to live beside the river. The sites were carefully chosen and always beautiful, had mountains in the background and murmuring water flowing past their settlements.  Today, the city of Chattanooga rises from one of those Cherokee sites. Sadly, Ross’s Landing is also known as the beginning of the Trail of Tears.
  • The first written account of this area by Europeans was around 1540 when Hernando DeSoto explored the Tennessee River Gorge from near present day Chattanooga downstream to where Guntersville, AL is located today.  
  • During the late 1600s the French used the Tennessee River Gorge as a trade route from the Mississippi River to Charleston, SC.

A River View of Civil War History

The cruise begins by heading in the opposite direction - downstream towards Moccasin Bend, a sharp curve in the Tennessee River at the foot of Lookout Mountain.  Looking up from the water's edge you will imagine what it was like to assault this famous mountain on the morning of November 24th, 1863. On that morning, Union forces began fighting their way from the base of the mountain near Moccasin Bend to the top where Confederate troops had positioned themselves.  The top of the mountain was shrouded in a low cloud deck which forms quite often throughout the year.  Thus the famous "Battle Above The Clouds".

There is a nice timeline of events connected to Moccasin Bend posted on the Friends of Moccasin Bend National Park website:

Wonderful Williams Island
Just downstream from Moccasin Bend is Williams Island.  This natural treasure is owned by the State of Tennessee - Division of Archaeology, but is managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust.  Here evidence of man settling the area dates back to the 12,000 year range. However, the latest evidence suggests that date could be as far back as 15,000 years ago.  These people were hunters and gatherers for the most part, but they also grew crops.  This fertile island has had agricultural activities off and on throughout the years up to today.  Farmers raise cattle here today and certified organic farming takes place on a limited basis.  The island has reverted back to a naturally wooded state over much of the acreage, and there is also a wetland on the island that is home to many native amphibians as well as beavers.  Without some carefully managed agriculture, the island would become overgrown very quickly and it would be impossible to continue archaeological research.

During the Civil War, one of the men who stole the locomotive "The General" from Atlanta escaped custody from authorities in Chattanooga and hid out on Williams Island until he was recaptured.  

It is common to see large groups of whitetail deer, some occasionally swimming to and from the island.  Large flocks of wild turkey inhabit Williams Island and may be observed from the water.

Williams Island is an excellent place to view butterflies and see many species of native songbirds.  Hawks can be seen circling overhead frequently, and osprey nest on a platform near the downstream end of the island.
River Gorge-ous!
As the River Gorge Explorer continues downstream away from Lookout Mountain and Williams Island, you will pass between Raccoon Mountain and Signal Mountain. During the Civil War, lookouts stationed atop Signal Mountain would send coded messages to troops below. This strategic high ground was important for observing troop and supply movements below.

Many people will enjoy the thousands of species of plants that can be observed within the Tennessee River Gorge.  In the spring, wildflowers will fill the steep sides of the gorge with vibrant colors.  In the summer, the mountains are a rich green which stretches out in all directions.  And in the fall, the carpet of autumn color blanketing the canyon will inspire everyone who views it. Some endangered plant species such as the mountain skullcap can be found in the gorge.  

It is this rich biodiversity that has brought scientists to the area since before the United States declared independence.  Quaker William Bartram, a naturalist, was commissioned by Dr. John Fothergill of London to travel into these lands, not to trade but to study.  In 1773, he embarked on a four-year expedition through the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Florida to the Gulf of Mexico. (Most likely this included the Tennessee River Gorge as well.  Remember, the territories were larger then than the states are now.)  

In his book, 'The Travels of William Bartram', he documents his appreciation of the land and fauna and the native people he encountered.  In the woods he discovered azaleas, lilies of the valley and dogwood.  He wrote of steep rocky hills and cascades of clear water.  When he met the Cherokee leader, Attakullakulla, he discovered that the People shared his reverence for plant life and respect for the natural environment. The Cherokee possessed great knowledge of their land and its plants, and they generously shared this learning with Bartram.  Others also came to study the plant life.  In 1887, the Smithsonian Institution sent James Mooney to the region to learn about plants and plant lore as it related to medicine from the Cherokees. And today this United Nation’s Biosphere Reserve continues to be studied by researchers.

Navigational Nightmares
Farther downstream are the former sites of some of the worst navigational hazards known in the East.  They were known as "The Suck", "The Skillet", "The Frying Pan" and "The Boiling Pot or The Pot". Long before the Tennessee Valley Authority tamed the river, the Tennessee was a wild river.  Huge fluctuations from times of drought to flood kept many from negotiating the river gorge.  And the fearsome four - Suck, Skillet, Pan and Pot were daunting by themselves.  Imagine foaming, roaring, swirling obstacles like these, combined with angry native tribes chasing you from high above on the gorge's walls.

Many people may know the epic tale of the Donelson Party's four-month journey from Fort Patrick Henry on the Holston River, through the Tennessee River Gorge to French Salt Spring on the Cumberland River, a thousand mile journey by water.  This flotilla of boats, flatboats, dugouts and canoes carried more than 200 pioneers, many of them women and children.  Donelson's diary tells of difficulty after difficulty: Indian attacks, frostbite and smallpox.  Just after successfully navigating through the Suck, the Jennings family boat ran aground while under fire from Chickamauga Indians on shore. The other boats continued downstream while Mr. Jennings' son and two others scampered safely to shore, but three women stayed on board.  One of them had delivered a child the night before.  Mrs. Jennings and another woman got the boat off of the rocks and downstream.  The women were drenched, and their dresses torn by bullet holes, but they survived.

Today the Tennessee River Gorge Trust's Pot Point Cabin stands on the north shore of the Tennessee River just past where the once treacherous Pot ripped boats apart.  In fact, it is believed that some of the old growth timber inside the original portion of the cabin was salvaged from a flatboat that was destroyed in either the Suck or the Pot.

Watching for Wildlife in the Gorge
A Tennessee Aquarium naturalist will be on the lookout for wildlife on every excursion and help guests identify the animals seen on each cruise. Fishermen occasionally report seeing river otters playing in the Gorge, along with muskrats, beaver, deer and turkey.  Kingfishers are seen along the banks of the river as well as herons, hawks and ospreys. Bald eagles are also known to travel through and nest within the Tennessee River Gorge. Several species of hawk are also residents within the Gorge. Birders will be pleased with the diversity of species that can be seen from the observation deck of the River Gorge Explorer.

A Complete Learning Adventure
This journey is as much about the history of the Gorge as it is about the plants and animals. The area is a natural treasure that has been preserved for future generations to enjoy.  

Come visit the Tennessee Aquarium and discover our wonderful connections to nature from the mountains to the sea. Then join us aboard the River Gorge Explorer and experience “Tennessee’s Grand Canyon” as it was meant to be seen - from the water.