Reelfoot Lake

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Reelfoot Lake
LocationLake / Obion counties, Tennessee, USA
Coordinates36°23′20″N 89°23′20″W / 36.38889°N 89.38889°W / 36.38889; -89.38889Coordinates: 36°23′20″N 89°23′20″W / 36.38889°N 89.38889°W / 36.38889; -89.38889
Lake typesag pond
Basin countriesUnited States
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Reelfoot Lake
LocationLake / Obion counties, Tennessee, USA
Coordinates36°23′20″N 89°23′20″W / 36.38889°N 89.38889°W / 36.38889; -89.38889Coordinates: 36°23′20″N 89°23′20″W / 36.38889°N 89.38889°W / 36.38889; -89.38889
Lake typesag pond
Basin countriesUnited States

Reelfoot Lake is a shallow natural lake located in the northwest portion of Tennessee, United States of America. Much of it is really more of a swamp, with bayou-like ditches (some natural, some man-made) connecting more open bodies of water called basins, the largest of which is called Blue Basin. Reelfoot Lake is noted for its bald cypress trees and its nesting pairs of bald eagles. It is the site of Reelfoot Lake State Park. Lake Isom, a similar, smaller lake to the immediate south, is a National Wildlife Refuge area.



According to the United States Geological Survey, Reelfoot Lake was formed when the region subsided during the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–1812.[1] Several eyewitnesses[2] reported that the Mississippi River flowed backward for 10–24 hours to fill the lake. The earthquakes resulted in several major changes in the landforms over a widespread area with shocks being felt as far away as Quebec.


In the early 20th century the Reelfoot area was marked by widespread lawlessness and "Night Riding," which resulted in the deployment of the state militia by governor of Tennessee Malcolm R. Patterson.[3] The troubles began when a group of landowners purchased almost the entire shoreline of the lake. They formed the West Tennessee Land Company to enforce what they saw to be their legal rights, including the ownership of the lake itself, and most importantly its fishing rights. Most of the Night Riders were from families that had derived much of their living from fishing the lake for generations, joined by their friends and supporters.

Two attorneys engaged by the West Tennessee Land Company to enforce its claims were seized by the Night Riders. A contemporary front-page account in the Nashville Banner tells that one lawyer -- Captain Quentin Rankin -- was murdered by being hanged and then shot, while the other -- Colonel R.Z. Taylor (grandfather of author Peter Taylor) -- escaped by swimming across the lake in the dark while being shot at by Night Riders.[4] [5] [6] This violence in 1908 caused the governor to call out the militia to restore order. The alleged murderers were arrested, unsuccessfully tried, and charges were eventually dropped. The lake was soon declared to be part of the public domain, which guaranteed the right of the public to use it regardless of who owned the land adjacent to it. A system of parks, wildlife refuges, recreation areas, and public boat ramps was eventually developed through federal-state cooperation.

Reelfoot Lake today

Reelfoot is the only large natural lake in Tennessee, and gives its name to Lake County, Tennessee, in which it is located. Until 2003,[citation needed] Reelfoot was the world's only legal commercial fishery for crappie, a species of sunfish, which was served in restaurants near the shore. The area is popular for recreational boating and fishing.

Since 1930, water levels in the lake have been regulated by the construction and operation of a spillway at the southern end where the Running Reelfoot Bayou flows out of it. This structure was controversial when first built, and an abortive attempt was made to blow it up by local residents in 1939. The 80-year-old structure is now regarded as obsolete by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, and there are plans to replace it.

Poor agricultural practices have resulted in siltation of the lake occurring far more rapidly than it should, as it was common practice for cotton and soybeans to be planted up to the water's edge until governmental agencies purchased the entire shoreline and forbade the practice. Siltation is nevertheless accelerated by the local custom of "burning out" the adjacent ditchlines every fall.

In 1999 the Memphis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) prepared the Reelfoot Lake Tennessee and Kentucky Final Feasibility Report and Final Environmental Impact Statement, September 1999 (EIS) in four volumes. The EIS consisted of a detailed analysis of various plans for addressing problems in the Reelfoot Lake area, including replacement of the spillway.

On February 17, 2006, TDOT submitted a permit application to both the USACE and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) proposing to construct a new spillway, a new spillway channel, and associated bridge (SR 21) over the channel at Reelfoot Lake to replace the existing spillway. An amended permit application was submitted to both agencies on March 30, 2006. A joint public meeting/hearing regarding these permit applications was held by the USACE and TDEC on July 6, 2006 at the Reelfoot Lake Visitor’s Center. Subsequent to the joint public meeting/hearing, TDEC also held two public hearings regarding a required navigation permit for the project. In addition to the permit public meeting/hearing referenced above, TDOT held two public meetings regarding this project, and throughout the spillway replacement and emergency repair projects, TDOT has been actively engaged with the USACE, TDEC, TWRA and USFWS.

The existing spillway is considered structurally deficient and the results of the most recent inspection indicate that the current structure has experienced advanced section loss, deterioration, spalling and scour.

Emergency Repairs

The existing spillway is considered structurally deficient and the results of the most recent inspection indicate that the current structure has experienced advanced section loss, deterioration, spalling and scour. As a result of this most recent inspection, along with public concern about the safety and stability of the present spillway and road embankment, TDOT initiated an emergency repair project to stabilize the existing spillway and road embankment. On May 2, 2007, a contract was awarded to Dement Construction for emergency repairs at the spillway. The contractor drove 64 foot-long steel sheets along the lake side of the spillway to stop water from leaking through the structure. The emergency repair project was completed on September 28, 2007.

Current Construction Project

On May 21, 2008, TDOT received the Notice of Determination, 401 Water Quality Certification and Navigable Waters Permit from TDEC. On August 20, 2008, the USACE issued the Individual Section 404 Permit for the project. On May 7, 2009, TDOT completed the right-of-way acquisition process for the project and obtained a Memorandum of Understanding with TWRA for the construction of the required mitigation site. On June 18, 2009, the Tennessee Department of Transportation accepted Dement Construction Company’s bid of $19,904,421.64 for the construction of the Reelfoot Spillway and Bridge Project. The project is currently on schedule to completed on or before the contract completion date of September 30, 2012.

Reelfoot Lake was the location for three memorable Hollywood movie productions: Raintree County, the 1957 drama about the American Civil War, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint, and Lee Marvin; the 1967 Oscar-winner, In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Best Actor Rod Steiger; and U.S. Marshals, the 1998 action thriller, starting Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Snipes. [7]

The name

Reelfoot Lake is said to be named for an Indian chief who had a deformed foot and was nicknamed "Reelfoot" by settlers in the early 1800s. A Chickasaw native American legend states that the name originated from a prince of a Chickasaw tribe inhabiting the present West Tennessee who was born with a deformed foot and walked with a rolling motion, so was nicknamed "Kolopin," meaning Reelfoot. When he became chief, Reelfoot determined to marry a Choctaw princess, but her father would not permit it. The Great Spirit warned Reelfoot that if he attempted to kidnap the maiden, his village and his people would be destroyed. Reelfoot disobeyed the Spirit, and seized the princess by force and carried her to Chickasaw territory, where he arranged a marriage ceremony. In the middle of the ceremony, the Great Spirit stamped his foot in anger, causing the earth to quake, and the Father of the Waters raised the Mississippi River over its banks, inundating Reelfoot's homeland. The water flowed into the imprint left by the Spirit's foot, forming a beautiful lake beneath which Reelfoot, his bride, and his people lie buried.[8] Other origins are also cited, for example, in his 1911 story "Fishhead," Irvin S. Cobb claimed the lake "[took] its name from a fancied resemblance in its outline to the splayed, reeled foot of a cornfield Negro."

See also


  1. ^ Historic Earthquakes: New Madrid Earthquakes 1811–1812: Earthquake Summary. USGS
  2. ^ Mathias Speed, March, 1812
  3. ^ Paul J. Vanderwood: Night Riders of Reelfoot Lake, Memphis State University Press, Memphis, Tenn., 1969, 159 pp.
  4. ^ Special to The New York Times. (1908-10-21). "Night Riders Slay Lawyers". New York Times. Retrieved 2011-12-16. Colonel Taylor was first reported killed but later confirmed to have escaped. 
  5. ^ "Night Riders Slay Lawyers". The Bee (Earlington KY): p. 1. 1908-10-22. Retrieved 2012-02-08. 
  6. ^ "Lawyer Escapes Mob". The Bee (Earlington KY): p. 1. 1908-10-22. Retrieved 2012-02-08. 
  7. ^ "U.S. Marshals". Retrieved 2011-12-16. 
  8. ^ Wilbur A. Nelson: "Reelfoot—an Earthquake Lake" in National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLV, January 1962, p. 103.