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The Harpeth River, 115 miles (185 km) long, is one of the major streams of north-central Middle Tennessee 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 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 which smelted recycled automobile batteries from the 1950s until the 1990s.
The stream flows generally westerly into the county seat of Williamson County, Franklin, which has become a suburb of Nashville since the 1960s. The Harpeth is both the source of the area's drinking water supply and the main site of its sewage disposal.
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 home called "Meeting of the Waters". 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. At a place known as the "Narrows of the Harpeth", near a prehistoric site known as Mound Bottom—an area dotted with Native American ceremonial and burial mounds of the Mississippian culture—ironmaster Montgomery Bell built an iron mill, largely through the use of slave labor. At a 7-mile (11 km) horseshoe bend, Bell's slaves under his direction cut a tunnel through approximately 200 yards (180 m) of solid rock, assisted only by 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 this feat that he curtailed some of his other area operations and even built a home near the site. Today, the tunnel and some "slag" are about all that remains of the operation. The Montgomery Bell Tunnel is a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. The tunnel and the sheer bluffs along the Narrows 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.
From this historic site, the flow becomes generally more northerly, but still greatly meandering. The Harpeth soon forms the line between Dickson County and Cheatham County 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 even did some preliminary study toward one, but a favorable cost-benefit ratio could never be satisfactorily shown, and the project was never built. Partially because of this fact, the lower portion of the Harpeth is very popular with canoeists and canoe outfitting businesses exist to rent canoes to them, which is a popular summertime activity with youth groups especially.
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.
With the planned removal of a lowhead dam in the city of Franklin, the Harpeth will be Middle Tennessee's second longest unimpounded stream (the longest being the Buffalo). The lower portion of the Harpeth is designated as a "scenic river" under the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act.
The origin of the name "Harpeth" is controversial. It is often cited in the area that it is named for the legendary outlaw brothers of the early 19th century in the area, the Harp Brothers, "Big Harp" and "Little Harp"; this is erroneous, as the name exists on maps and documents predating their fame. 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". 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 near Bellevue, but he also states that the song was definitely not based on any occurrence there; rather, he simply liked the sound of it.
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Kingston Springs, TN - An area for canoe access in Cheatham County, west of Nashville.