Burgess Falls and Center Hill Lake and Dam

By dancingintheraine

July 24, 2008

Category: Uncategorized

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Burgess Falls State Natural Area, located in Middle Tennessee near Sparta, lies on the eastern edge of Tennessee’s eastern edge of the Eastern Highland Rim adjacent to the Cumberland Plateau and is noted for its natural beauty.

Burgess Falls State Park is a very nice State Park managed by the Tennessee Department of Environmental and Conservation, that covers over 350 acres in Putnam County and White County, and well worth a visit.

This park offers 3 water falls fueled by the Fall Water River, with the main attraction being Burgess Falls. While this park is open year-round, please know that it is closed on days of high precipitation due to the Falling Water River’s volatility. Site management information: Burgess Falls State Natural Area, 4000 Burgess Falls Drive, Sparta, TN 38583-8456 (931) 432-5312; Division of Natural Areas, 401 Church Street, 14th Floor L&C Tower, Nashville, TN 37243-0447 (615) 532-0431.

Located only about 20-25 minutes north of Falls Creek State Park seeing both parks in one day is very much recommended if you allocate enough time. To get here, take I-40 and get off at exit 286 (Hwy 135) just west of Cookeville. Head south on Hwy 135 for about 7 miles to the signed entrance. From Sparta, head north on Hwy 111 for a few miles and look for the exit for Burgess Falls. Word of Warning: Highway 111 has several speed traps especially in Van Buren County near Spencer, on your way to Burgess Falls, note the changes in speed limits and take notice! I’m pretty sure the sign said Highway 136. Follow it and the signs to Highway 135 and the park entrance. This is a very large area of middle-eastern Tennessee with numerous waterfalls. Many of the falls here plunge over cliffs in an amphitheater type setting.

The park exhibits sheer bluffs, narrow ridges, rolling water and abundant mixed forest, elements that characterize this area. The Falling Water River drops approximately 250 feet (76 meters), providing numerous waterfalls, breathtaking scenery and overlooks. The park is home to over 300 species trees and plants and an abundance of wildlife. Park visitors can visit the large Native Butterfly Garden located adjacent to the upper parking lot.

The history of Burgess Falls can be traced back over three centuries. Before European settlement, Indians of the Cherokee, Creek and Chickasaw tribes shared this region as a hunting ground. One of the first white settlers, Thomas Burgess, received a land grant here in 1793 as partial payment for his services in the Revolutionary War. By the late 19th century, a gristmill and sawmill were in operation on the river here. For the growing logging and farming communities, the Falling Water River played a key role in the development of the surrounding area by providing energy and recreational opportunities. Along this river there once stood a grist mill operated by the Burgess family, which provided meal and flour to many settlers of the region. Also, powered by the river, there stood a sawmill that provided lumber instead of the hand-sawn lumber that took so long for the settlers to cut. Probably the most noted industry here was the production of electricity. The City of Cookeville acquired the land in 1924, and constructed an earthen dam and powerhouse along the river a mile or so upstream from Burgess Falls in order to produce electricity for the city. In 1928 though, a torrential rain caused the dam to wash out. When the dam broke, the resulting rush of water completely demolished the powerhouse constructed. The city replaced it with a concrete dam that provided the area with electricity until the arrival of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1944.

This new dam and powerhouse produced electricity quite effectively until 1944, at which time it became obsolete due to TVA’s massive new dams and powerhouses. Today, the Burgess Falls Dam still stands, but the character of the area has changed.

You can still see part of the pipeline bridge that still spans the river in the vicinity of the Little Falls.

This is the support structures for the pipeline bridge. The pipeline originally crossed the river in a tunnel on the north walls of the gorge and emerged to cross the river again near the Middle Falls en route to a powerhouse. This bridge wasn’t built for people to walk across it.

It was built to carry a tunnel that carried water from the dam upstream to the place where they made power downstream. This is an old photo from which you can see what the pipeline used to look like. After many years of neglect and abuse, the area is once again being allowed to return to its proud and natural state. Under protection as a State Natural Area since 1973, visitors today may enjoy the same scenic splendor of Burgess Falls, easily seen from the River Trail. The Falling Water River rises near the bases of the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Putnam County and winds itss way across the Highland Rim to its mouth along the Center Hill Lake impoundment of the Caney Fork River, which is located in an area where the Highland Rim drops off into the Central Basin. The Burgess Falls State Natural Area comprises the section of the river just above its mouth, where the river drops from roughly 900 feet (270 meters) atop the Highland Rim to just over 600 feet (180 meters) at Center Hill Lake. Over time, the Falling Water River’s rapids have cut a deep gorge just above its mouth. The river drops to the Central Basin in a series of cascades and waterfalls, each gaining in size and intensity as the river approaches Center Hill Lake.

At the Falling Water Cascades, located just downstream from the old Burgess Falls Dam, the river gradually spills over a 10-foot (3.0 meter) embankment of rocks. This is where the trail picks up. All 3 falls featured are along the same single path that is about 3/4 of a mile end to end is and a very easy walk for the entire family. In what are teasers along your trail you will first come to the Little Falls which lies along this section of the river also. It’s about a 30′ (9.1 meter) drop over a series of ledges that stretch along the width of the river, and is less than 0.5 miles down the trail, maybe 100 yards down the trail.

Beyond the Little Falls, where the river briefly bends to the north, about another 1/4 to 1/2 mile down beyond these little cascades, is Middle Falls and is larger and a bit more majestic.

There’s an overlook for the Middle Falls where spectators can view an 80’ (24 meters)’ spectacle of hydro-power plunging over the rocks in another series of more drastic cascades.

There’s no good way down to the river from here for a better view. Believe me when I tell you that I was looking! Downstream from the Middle Falls, the river bends westward again, and a little more than 1/4 mile farther down the trail is the overlook for the gorgeous Burgess Falls. The river spills 136′ (41 meters) over this falls into a large limestone gorge enclosed by 100-200 foot walls, and I assure you that you won’t see anything else quite like it.

This grand falls mark the descent of the riverbed from the Highland Rim into the Nashville Basin over a particularly resistant layer of sedimentary rock called cherty limestone from the Paleozoic Era, but more specifically the Mississippian Period.

(The Nashville Basin is a term often used to describe the area surrounding Nashville, Tennessee. This area is more correctly referred to as the ‘Central Basin’ of Tennessee.)

There are actually three major geological periods represented in the natural area that contribute to the formation of these great falls. The Fort Payne Formation sits above the Devonian and Mississippian Period Chattanooga Shale. A lesser resistant limestone has dissolved and eroded to form the scenic gorge and surrounding escarpment.

The deposition that forms the gorge is from the Ordovician Period and is represented by Leipers and Catheys formations. This is an excellent example of the geologic process that formed the Highland Rim and the Central Basin. Chattanooga Shale is often present and delineates the two subunits.

Fort Payne formation (Fort Payne Chert) is a geological formation located in the southeastern region of the United States. It is a Mississippian limestone that overlies the Chattanooga Shale (or locally the Maury Formation) and underlies the St. Louis Limestone (lower Tuscumbia Limestone in Alabama). To the north, it grades into the siltstone Borden Formation. Eugene Allen Smith named the Fort Payne Formation for outcrops at Fort Payne, Alabama. Chattanooga Shale is from the Devonian Period. And below that, Leipers Formation and Catheys Formation are from the Ordovician Period of the Paleozoic Era.

This breath-taking falls is truly unique, and one of the prettiest in Tennessee. The main viewing area is an overlook. Most people stay on this overlook and take their photos here.

This is a nice photo from the overlook down at Falling Water River after it has fallen over the edge of the world into the gorge. The distance between the Falling Water Cascades and Burgess Falls is less than a mile. The more adventuresome, like yours truly, takes the marked trail the base. This trail is a little steeper, but very not difficult for the average person. It comes out at the top of the falls and you can get right up to the edge for a peek over. Try not to fall off!

It is also a wonderful spot to take photos, as Brutus and I posed for a nice photo. From here, there’s a set of caged-in stairs that lead towards the base.

This is a good photo of the falls halfway down the stairs. There are some good views of the side of the falls and once at the bottom of the steps, some good views through the trees. We thought the trail would lead to the river, but the official trail ends above it at a landing with a nice view. There is an unofficial trail down to the river that’s a little steeper and rockier, so we headed down and staked out a place right in front of the falls.

The view was awesome! There was quite a bit of spray coming off the falls that made picture taking almost impossible.

This is a nice photo of Brutus posing with the falls behind him, taken specifically for his UK girlfriend, Millie.

Even Jeff enjoyed the cool temperatures and atmosphere down here!

And another one for Millie! Brutus has become one of the most famous pups in the world thanks to my international readers! The geologic features that create the scenic value, also supports diverse forest communities. The mixed mesophytic forest is particularly interesting. It includes eastern hemlock, umbrella magnolia, and the cucumber magnolia tree. These are species more often found in similar forests in East Tennessee. This forest also supports basswood, buckeye, sugar and red maple, numerous oaks and hickories, white ash, tulip poplar, and beech. Several showy spring wildflowers include bloodroot, two species of toothwort, wood poppy, numerous trillium species, trout lily, white dogtooth violet (Erythronium albidum), Solomon’s seal, columbine, foamflower, rue anemone, goldenseal, dwarf crested iris, and shooting star.

Falling Water River flows into Center Hill Lake roughly a mile downstream, and then through / over Center Hill Dam, a Corps of Engineers project.

Tennessee is a beautiful state and home to well over 200 waterfalls. If you need a good guide book, I recommend Waterfalls of Tennessee by Gregory Plumb. Online, a wealth of good info can be found at Tennessee Landforms website at the following address:


Center Hill Dam was created by the damming of the Caney Fork River. Center Hill Lake is surrounded by Fancher Falls, Evins Mill Falls, Cul-Car-Mac Falls, and Twin Falls. Also, Virgin Falls, Cane Creek Falls, Cummins Falls, Fall Creek Falls, and a dozen other waterfalls, as well as Burgess Falls are all within an hours drive of the lake.

Falling Water River combines with the Caney Fork River, and flows into Center Hill Lake roughly a mile downstream, and eventually falls through / over Center Hill Dam, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project. Center Hill Dam was created by the damming of the Caney Fork River. The Caney Fork River played a large role in the development of DeKalb County by providing drinking water, power and transportation. Grist mills and saw mills were established on the many creeks flowing into the Caney Fork River. By following the Caney Fork one could travel down stream to Nashville and as far away as New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

Abundant stands of virgin timber lined the banks and surrounding areas of the Caney Fork River and the Caney Fork provided easy access to market in Nashville. Timber was cut and mules were used to drag the logs to the river bank. There the timber was fastened together forming large rafts ranging in size from 20 to 40 feet in width and up to 90 feet in length. A tent or other makeshift structure provided shelter to the crew and depending on water conditions the trip downstream to Nashville took from one to two weeks.

The largest volume of timber rafting took place between 1870 and 1900. This picture Circa 1938 shows a timber raft thought to be about two miles below current day Sligo Bridge. It was one of the last known timber rafts to make the journey from DeKalb County to Nashville. In the 1880’s it was discovered that the plentiful mussels in the Caney Fork River contained a valuable commodity in the form of pearls. From 1885 to about 1915 Smithville became a leading fresh water pearl market with some pearls bringing in over $1,000.00, a considerable amount of money in those days.

Center Hill Lake is a reservoir in Middle Tennessee near Smithville. Created by means of a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1948, the lake had a dual purpose: electricity production and flood control. Center Hill Dam is 260 ft (79 m) high, and it is composed of concrete and earth structures, with 8 gates that are 50 ft (15 m) wide each. Center Hill Dam and Center Hill Lake was authorized by federal legislation, specifically the Flood Control Act of 1938 and River and Harbor Act of 1946. Construction was completed and the gates were closed on November 27, 1948.
On a regional level Center Hill Dam is one of several projects designed to develop and control water resources in the Cumberland River basin. By controlling the waters of the Caney Fork River, Center Hill Dam reduces flooding of municipal, industrial and agricultural areas down stream. Regionally, Center Hill Dam prevents the Cumberland River from flooding Carthage and Nashville. The Caney Fork River flows into the Cumberland River near Carthage. From Carthage the Cumberland River flows into the Tennessee River at Land Between the Lakes on the Kentucky – Tennessee Border. From there the Tennessee River Flows into the Ohio River near Paducah, Kentucky and the Ohio River joins the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois. As illustrated by the river connections, Center Hill Dam is one part of a larger system which is an important part of the development for the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It aids in river navigation on the Cumberland and it provides electrical power. Center Hill Dam has three 45,000kw water powered turbines that produce clean and efficient hydroelectric power. Total output from Center Hill Dam is sufficient to supply electricity to a community of approximately 125,000 people.

Center Hill Dam is specifically a concrete gravity and earth-fill type dam. The overall length of Center Hill Dam is approximately 3,950 feet. The concrete section is 1,790 feet in length and contains 993,800 cubic yards of concrete.

The terraced earth-fill portion is 2,160 feet in length containing 2,541,000 cubic feet of rock and earth, as demonstrated by this picture taken in 1948, when it was almost complete.

In this picture, the dam was well underway when a flood caused damage to the equipment, warehouses, and other buildings used by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. In the upper left corner the terraced earth and rock portion of the dam are visible. The flood gates are to the left of the crane and were not completed at the time of this picture.

Center Hill Dam as it looks today. The generators are running in this picture as evidenced by the foaming water in the right side of the picture.

Center Hill Dam can generate enough electricity to power a city of approximately 125,000 people.

On the local level Center Hill Dam provides a beautiful pristine reservoir.

Major tributaries of Center Hill Lake include the Caney Fork (the main tributary), and the Falling Water River. The lake, which is 64 miles (103 km) long, covers an area of 18,220 acres (74 km²) of deep, pure water – the ideal habitat for many species of fish. Center Hill Lake has a storage capacity of 762,000 acre feet (940,000,000 m²) of water. The lake has approximately 415 miles (668 km) of largely undeveloped shoreline, with the deepest point at 190 feet (58 m). The water shed area for the lake is 2,174 square miles (5,631 km²). The lake is well-known for water recreation and fishing. The coordinates for this lake is 36.09698ºN, 85.86869ºW, with a catchment area of 2, 174 square miles (5,631 km2)

The lake offers a wide variety of sporting opportunities beyond fishing, including boating, water-skiing, camping, picnicking, hiking and swimming. There are 8 marinas, 5 restaurants, 3 state parks, 9 Army Corps recreation areas, and the Appalachian Craft Center on the lake. There is NOT a big problem with biting flies and mosquitoes like many lakes elsewhere.The majority of the drinking water in DeKalb and Putnam Counties comes from Center Hill Lake.

Edgar Evins (picture taken above in Edgar), Burgess Falls and Rock Island State Parks contain portions of the lake’s shoreline, the rest of which has been relatively underdeveloped until recent years. Lately, the area surrounding Center Hill Lake has been the target of land developers, who have begun construction on several upper-middle-class vacation homes and condos. Some locals protest that these actions are destroying the beauty of nature that make it such an attractive locale for such developments. Center Hill Lake Information Line 1-800-238-2264 615-548-4521 For lake level, water level, water temperature and fishing information Center Hill Lake is surrounded by Fancher Falls, Evins Mill Falls, Cul-Car-Mac Falls, and Twin Falls. Also, Virgin Falls, Cane Creek Falls, Cummins Falls, Fall Creek Falls, and a dozen other waterfalls, as well as Burgess Falls are all within an hours drive of the lake. Tennessee is a beautiful state and home to well over 200 waterfalls. If you need a good guide book, I recommend Waterfalls of Tennessee by Gregory Plumb. Online, a wealth of good info can be found at Tennessee Landforms website at the following address: The Caney Fork River and Center Hill Dam and Lake have played a prominent role in the history of DeKalb County. Currently it is estimated that Center Hill Lake draws 3,982,000 visitors each year and adds approximately $39 million into the local economy of DeKalb and Putnam Counties. In January 2007, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers placed Center Hill Dam under a high risk for failure, along with Wolf Creek Dam in Russell County, Kentucky. Currently the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is conducting a $220 million project to address seepage at Center Hill Dam. The project is scheduled to begin in 2007 and completion is slated for 2014. Project information is available at the following link: http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/CenterHill/

For more information on Center Hill Dam and Lake visit the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers website at: http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil/op/cen/rec/

Generating Schedule for Center Hill Dam: http://www.orn.usace.army.mil/pao/lakeinfo/CEN.htm


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