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Harpeth River

Coordinates: 36°18′13″N 87°9′10″W / 36.30361°N 87.15278°W / 36.30361; -87.15278
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CountryUnited States
Physical characteristics
 • coordinates
36°18′13″N 87°9′10″W / 36.30361°N 87.15278°W / 36.30361; -87.15278[1]

The Harpeth River, 115 miles (185 km) long,[2] is one of the major streams of north-central Middle Tennessee, United States, and one of the major tributaries of the Cumberland River. Via the Cumberland and the Ohio Rivers, it is part of the Mississippi River watershed. The lower portion of the Harpeth is designated as a "scenic river" under the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act.[3]


The Harpeth rises in the westernmost part of Rutherford County, Tennessee, just to the east of the community of College Grove in eastern Williamson County. The upper portion of the river has been contaminated to some extent by the operation of a lead smelting plant located near the Kirkland community that recycled used automobile batteries from the 1950s until the 1990s. [4]

The stream flows generally westerly into Franklin, the county seat of Williamson County and suburb of Nashville. The Harpeth is the source of the area's drinking water supply.[5]

At Franklin, the course of the river turns more northwesterly; a few miles northwest of Franklin is the mouth of one of the Harpeth's main tributaries, the West Harpeth, which drains much of the southern portion of Williamson County. Near this site is an antebellum plantation house called "Meeting of the Waters".[6] The river in this area flows quite near the Natchez Trace (the original road of that name, not the modern Parkway named for it, which is several miles distant). The river shortly crosses into Davidson County and receives the flow of the Little Harpeth River, another important tributary. The stream flows near the unincorporated Nashville suburb of Bellevue and shortly after this flows into Cheatham County.

The course of the river in Cheatham County is very meandering. A few miles into Cheatham County, it is joined by another major tributary, the South Harpeth, which drains some of the southwestern portion of Davidson County, southeastern Cheatham County, and a small portion of northwesternmost Williamson County.

In Cheatham County is a remarkable civil engineering feat of the early 19th century. Ironmaster Montgomery Bell built an iron mill near the "Narrows of the Harpeth". At a 7-mile (11 km) horseshoe bend, Bell's workers cut a tunnel through approximately 200 yards (180 m) of solid rock. They used black-powder blasting techniques to build a diversion tunnel to power the mill, which Bell called "Pattison Forge" (often spelled, incorrectly, "Patterson") after his mother's maiden name. Bell was so pleased with his mill that he curtailed some of his other area operations and built a home near the site. Today, the diversion tunnel and some "slag" are about all that remain of his mill operation. The Montgomery Bell Tunnel is a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Also at the "Narrows of the Harpeth" is a prehistoric site known as Mound Bottom, noted for the complex earthwork constructions built from 950 and occupied into the 15th century. This area has several ceremonial and burial earthwork mounds of the Native American Mississippian culture, which preceded those historic tribes of the area known to European encounter. Bell's diversion tunnel and the sheer bluffs nearby are now part of the Narrows of the Harpeth section of Harpeth River State Park, a linear park connecting several natural, historic, and archaeological sites along the lower Harpeth.[7]

From this historic site, the flow becomes generally more northerly, but still greatly meandering. The Harpeth soon forms the line between Dickson and Cheatham counties for the last part of its course. A few miles above the mouth are what are known as the Three Islands; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed siting a dam near this location on several occasions and did some preliminary study. It was not supported by a favorable cost-benefit ratio and the project was never built.[citation needed] The lower portion of the Harpeth is very popular with canoeists, supporting canoe-outfitting and related businesses.

The mouth of the Harpeth into the Cumberland is near Ashland City, the Cheatham County seat. Near the mouth is a bridge on State Route 49 named in Montgomery Bell's honor. The mouth is just below the Cumberland's Harpeth Island, and is somewhat submerged by the backwaters of the Corps' Cheatham Dam.

After the removal of the lowhead dam in the city of Franklin, the Harpeth is Tennessee's second-longest unimpounded stream (the longest being the Buffalo).[8][9][10]


The origin of the name "Harpeth" is controversial. It is often claimed that the river was named for America's first known serial killers, the Harpe brothers, known as "Big Harpe" and "Little Harpe" who were in the area in 1797; this is erroneous since the name existed on maps and documents as early as 1784, predating their fame.[11] A late-18th-century map, published in London, purportedly shows the steam as the "Fairpath"; there is some dissension about whether the name is of Native American origin or perhaps a corruption of the rather common English name "Harper".[citation needed]

Another possible origin for the name of the Harpeth River was presented by Edward D. Hicks in a paper read before the Tennessee Historical Society and published by the “American Historical Magazine” in 1900. Hicks comments upon the influence of classical literature read by learned gentlemen in the 18th century. One source popular among many in the English-speaking world, including America, was the “Spectator” published by Joseph Addison. The “Spectator” contained articles on philosophy, morals and the classics. In publication number 584, printed in 1714, is found the antediluvian love story of Hilpa, Harpath and Shalum. Harpath comes to an untimely end drowning in a river as he attempted to cross it. “The river is called to this day from his name, who perished in it, the river Harpath…”.[12] Hicks does not offer the claim that this is the definitive origin of the name however he does say it is “certainly appropriate…I submit it as the most probable and ingenious theory I can suggest.”[13] Early 18th-century maps including Matthew Carey's 1795 Map of Tennessee[14] as well as that of John Reid,[15] Imlay's American Topography, Arrowsmith, and Stockdale use the spelling Harpath River which differs from the modern spelling of “Harpeth”. The exception is John Russell's 1794 map of the Southwest Territory published in London circa 1794.[16] The earliest known written reference is found in the diary of John Lipscomb. His July 1784 entry mentions the “Harpath” river.[17] In addition, contemporary historian Virginia Bowman gives credence to Hicks' theory in her comprehensive book on early sites and homes of Williamson County, Tennessee.[18]

There is no dispute that the title of the song "Harper Valley PTA" by Tom T. Hall is derived from this stream, indirectly. Hall, long an area resident, says that the song's name derives from Harpeth Valley Elementary School in Davidson County in Bellevue, but he also states that the song was definitely not based on any occurrence there; rather, he simply liked the sound of it.[citation needed]

River access[edit]

Common put-ins/take-outs:

Kingston Springs, TN - An area for canoe access in Cheatham County, west of Nashville.[19]

  • Turkey Creek - approx. 438 E. Kingston Springs Rd.
  • Kingston Springs City Park - 589 Park Street, Kingston Springs, TN 37082
  • Gossett Tract -1230 Cedar Hill Road, Kingston Springs, TN 37082
  • Narrows of the Harpeth - 1254 Narrow of the Harpeth Road, Kingston Springs, TN 37082
  • Harris Street Bridge Canoe Access - 1672 Cedar Hill Road, Kingston Springs, TN 37082
  • Hwy 70 Canoe Access - 1007 Cedar Hill Road / 1294 Hwy 70, Kingston Springs, 37082

Franklin, TN[20]

  • Fieldstone Park - approx. 2194 Fieldstone Pkwy.
  • Meeting of the Waters - approx. 3176 Del Rio Pike
  • The Rope Swing - Old Natchez Trace
  • Moran Rd - Moran Rd

Bellevue/West Davidson County, TN - An area for canoe access in Davidson County, west of Nashville.[21]

  • Hwy 100 Canoe Access - 7701 Hwy 100, Nashville, TN 37221
  • Newsom's Mill - 8729 Newsom Station Road, Nashville, TN 37221
  • Hidden Lake - 7851 McCrory Lane, Nashville, TN 37221

See also[edit]


  1. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Harpeth River
  2. ^ U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed June 8, 2011
  3. ^ "Scenic Rivers Program". Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. Archived from the original on July 12, 2013. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
  4. ^ Maxwell, Lon (March 4, 2016). "The Situation with the Flint River". Williams County Public Library. Retrieved January 9, 2017. What lead we do see in the Harpeth and surrounding watersheds comes from natural sources but may be contributed to by lead smelting and battery reclamation. From the 1950s to the 1990s in College Grove, General Smelting and Refining Inc. (owned by Metalico) operated a plant that did just that on a site adjacent to the river near its head waters. While there is no current concern for lead contamination, continued monitoring for lead and antimony from the plant still goes on.
  5. ^ "2006 Water Quality Report". Water Management Department; City of Franklin, Tennessee. Archived from the original on July 23, 2011. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
  6. ^ Kevin Walters. "Gift Keeps Historic Home, Land Safe From Development". Land Trust for Tennessee. Archived from the original on April 12, 2011. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
  7. ^ "Harpeth River State Park". Tennessee State Park. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
  8. ^ "Lowhead dam removal and river restoration project on the Harpeth River in Franklin". Harpeth River Restoration Project and Lowhead Dam Removal. Harpeth River Watershed Association. August 1, 2010. Retrieved February 21, 2017.
  9. ^ "Harpeth's only dam set for demolition" (PDF). The Tennessean. August 9, 2011. Retrieved February 21, 2017.
  10. ^ "Franklin's Former Lowhead Dam Site Is Now A River Access & Historic Battlefield Park". Harpeth River Restoration Project and Lowhead Dam Removal. Harpeth River Watershed Association. July 31, 2014. Retrieved February 21, 2017.
  11. ^ Crutchfield, James A. (1994). The Harpeth River: A Biography. Johnson City, TN: The Overmountain Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 9781570720161.
  12. ^ Addison, Joseph (1803). The Spectator (Volume VIII No. 584 ed.). Philadelphia: Samuel F. Bradford. pp. 118–121. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  13. ^ Hicks, Edward (1900). Origin of the Name Harpeth (Volume V ed.). Peabody Normal School: The American Historical Magazine. pp. 128–131. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  14. ^ Carey, Matthew. "Map of the Tennassee Government". Tennessee State Library and Archives. Guthrie's Geography.
  15. ^ Reid, John. "Map of the Tennassee Government". Library of Congress. J Reid, New York.
  16. ^ Russell, John. "Map of the State of Kentucky with the Adjoining Territories". Library of Congress. H.D. Symonds, London.
  17. ^ Lipscomb, John (1784). Diary of John Lipscomb. Tennessee State Library and Archives 1L66.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  18. ^ Bowman, Virginia McDaniel (1971). Historic Williamson County: Old Homes and Sites (1st ed.). Nashville, TN: Blue and Gray Press. p. 1.
  19. ^ "Harpeth River State Park River Access" (PDF). Tennessee State Parks. Retrieved 9 January 2017.
  20. ^ "Harpeth River Canoe Access". City of Franklin Parks Department. City of Franklin. Retrieved 9 January 2017.
  21. ^ "Harpeth River State Park River Access" (PDF). Tennessee State Parks. Tennessee State Parks. Retrieved 23 January 2018.

External links[edit]