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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 that recycled use automobile batteries from the 1950s until the 1990s.
The stream flows generally westerly into Franklin, the county seat of Williamson County. It has operated as 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. Ironmaster Montgomery Bell built an iron mill near the "Narrows of the Harpeth," largely through the use of slave labor of African Americans. At a 7-mile (11 km) horseshoe bend, Bell's slaves 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 950CE and occupied into the 140os. 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.
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. 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.
With the planned removal of the 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.Bernard de la Harpe sailed into Mobile Bay in 1719 under French Flag to locate a port and center for the South West territory which the French claimed as well as the Mississippi basin and Ohio Valley to Quebec. de la Harpe kept journals and made maps which were published about 1750 and the maps were used by Lewis & Clark in their explorations. de la Harpe included Tenase/Tennessee and the Chiriqui/Cherokee villages region. While there is no label on the Harpeth River by de la Harpe, He is the logical source for the Name. Some references to the Farpath/Fairpath name were known to be referred to as a Hare path because of the winding way of the stream. Most of the previous references are pure fiction. Before English settlements, What is now Nashville was known as French Lick and there was a French presence. Even the head waters of the Harpeth flow from a hill called Versailles. SEE: Bernard de la Harpe. SEE: USGS map
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Kingston Springs, TN - An area for canoe access in Cheatham County, west of Nashville.
- Turkey Creek - approx. 438 E. Kingston Springs Rd.
- Kingston Springs City Park - 548 Old Pinnacle Hill Rd.
- Gossett Tract - approx 1240 Cedar Hill Rd.
- The Narrows of the Harpeth - plenty of signs/info
- Cedar Hill Rd - approx. 1692 Cedar Hill Rd.
- 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
- Hwy 100 - approx. 7610 Hwy 100
- U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Harpeth River
- U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed June 8, 2011
- "2006 Water Quality Report". Water Management Department; City of Franklin, Tennessee. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
- "Wastewater Division". City of Franklin, Tennessee. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
- Kevin Walters. "Gift Keeps Historic Home, Land Safe From Development". Land Trust for Tennessee. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
- "Harpeth River State Park". Tennessee State Park. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
- "Lowhead Dam Removal Project on Harpeth River in Franklin". Harpeth River Watershed Association. Retrieved June 13, 2011.
- "Scenic Rivers Program". Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation. Retrieved June 13, 2011.