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Map of the Cumberland River Watershed
Barge traffic on the Cumberland River.
The U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers maintains the river for tug-and-barge navigation.
The Cumberland River is an important waterway in the Southern United States. It is long. It starts in Harlan Countymarker in eastern Kentuckymarker on the Cumberland Plateau, flows through southeastern Kentucky and crosses into northern Tennesseemarker, and then curves back up into western Kentucky before draining into the Ohio River at Smithland, Kentuckymarker. The Cumberland is one of three major Kentucky rivers with headwaters in Harlan Countymarker: the others are the Kentucky River and the Big Sandy River.


The Cumberland River is a wild river above the headwaters of Lake Cumberland. Cumberland Fallsmarker, high, is one of the largest waterfalls in the eastern United States and is one of the few places in the Western Hemisphere where a moonbow can be seen. Most of the river below Lake Cumberland's Wolf Creek Dammarker is navigable because of several lock and dams. A 90-mile section of its Big South Fork is protected by the National Park Service as Big South Fork National River and Recreation Areamarker.

Dams at various locations of the Cumberland River have created large reservoirs for recreation such as: Lake Barkleymarker in western Kentucky and Lake Cumberlandmarker (the deepest lake in the Tennessee and Cumberland river valleys) in southern Kentucky; Cordell Hull and Old Hickory Lakemarker to the east of Nashville; and Cheatham Lake to the west. Laurel Lake, on the Laurel River in southern Kentucky, the Dale Hollow Reservoirmarker on the Obey River in northeast Middle Tennessee, and Percy Priest Lakemarker on the Stones River in Nashvillemarker are each created by dams located just upstream from their respective confluences with the Cumberland River.


Important first as a passage for hunters and settlers, the Cumberland River also supported later riverboat trade which reached to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Villages, towns and cities were located at landing points along its banks. Through the middle of the 19th century, settlers depended on rivers for trading and travel.

In 1748, Dr. Thomas Walker led a party of hunters across the Appalachian Mountainsmarker from Virginiamarker. Walker, a Virginian, was an explorer and surveyor of renown. He gave the name "Cumberland" to the lofty range of mountains his party crossed, in honor of Prince William, Duke of Cumberland whose name had become popular in America after the Battle of Cullodenmarker in 1746. Walker's party pursued their journey by way of the Cumberland Gapmarker into what is today Kentucky. Finding a beautiful mountain stream flowing across their course they called it the "Cumberland River."Walker's journal entry for April 17, 1750, reads in part: "I went down the creek a-hunting, and found that it went into a river about a mile below our camp. This, which is Flat Creek and some other join'd, I called Cumberland River."

Previous to Walker's trip, the Cumberland River had been called Warioto by Native Americans and Shauvanon by French traders. The river was also known as the Shawnee River (or Shawanoe River) for years after Walker's trip.

Several American Civil War battles occurred near the Cumberland River, including the battle for Fort Donelsonmarker. The river's name has been used to name the Union Army of the Cumberland , and several U.S. Navy ships have been called USS Cumberland.

Modern use

The Cumberland River is an important part of the Great Loop, the circumnavigation of Eastern North America by water.



  • Albright, Edward. "Early History of Middle Tennessee". (1908).
  • Stewart, George R. "Names on the Land". (Boston: 1967) (See George R. Stewart)
  • Arthur Benke & Colbert Cushing, "Rivers of North America". Elsevier Academic Press, 2005 ISBN 0-12-088253-1
  • Myers, Fred (2004) Cumberland River CruiseGuide, ISBN 0-9704962-3-0
  • Duthie, Bob & Mavis (2008) What to Expect Cruising the Cumberland River,CD-ROM [61369]

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