History occasionally proves itself provocative. Sometimes decisions made in the 1700s, and mistakes made in the early 1800s, can get modern legislators all worked up in the 21st century.
Last week, of course, it was the Georgia Legislature’s attempt at a land grab for fresh water, based on the assertion that the southern boundary of Tennessee was mis-surveyed in 1818, and that if correctly surveyed at latitude 35 degrees north, precisely, Georgia would have intake pipes in the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, and better access to fresh water, at least in urban areas like Atlanta—where lack of water during times of drought has been a significant domestic inconvenience. Nobody’s dying of thirst there, but they’ve had to cut back on car washes and lawn-moistening projects.
They do have a point. The original Tennessee Constitution, signed by all the delegates of the prospective state in downtown Knoxville on Feb. 6, 1796, asserted that Tennessee’s southern boundary would be the same as that of the region’s mother entity, North Carolina. Through the authority of Great Britain, the colony of North Carolina had established its boundary with South Carolina, which then included Georgia, by 1723, at the 35th parallel.
Later, during a property question with the new state of Mississippi, a Tennessee legislative committee asked, “can it now be questioned, but that wherever shall be found the true degree of latitude 35, that there shall be the true Southern boundary of Tennessee?”
It seems as if antebellum Tennessee legislators would have thoroughly agreed with Georgia’s claim.
Of course, there’s the well-known old English common-law principle of adverse possession: that if you keep a piece of property clearly marked off and used as yours, for a period of time, usually several years, it’s yours indeed. Years ago, Georgia lost a bit of itself to South Carolina under that principle, when the palmetto state built a land bridge to what had been a Georgia island, and Georgia didn’t object right away. I did some research, and adverse-possession laws tend to require a surprisingly short period of occupation: seven years, 10 years, 20 years. Tennessee has occupied that land, pretty decisively, for 212 years now.
We do have to admit we’re lucky to have so much of the Tennessee River, one of the great watersheds of the continent. The fresh water that flows into it comes mostly from Virginia and North Carolina, but it’s there for us to use. We share it with Alabama, a little, and, when we’re all done with it, we send it on to Kentucky.
We don’t share it with Georgia at all. And Georgia has never had anything to compare to the Tennessee River.
So far, Georgia has thrived without it. Atlanta became bigger than Knoxville in the 1840s, mainly just because they got railroad service more than a decade before we did. A large part of the reason Atlanta grew was due to the geographical advantages or not being surrounded by mountains and valleys and wild rivers, which are pretty but can inhibit road and railroad development, as was the case here. At the time of the first vigorous, well-footed, but doomed attempt to build a railroad to Knoxville, Atlanta was about the size of Pete’s Café. Some Atlanta historians attribute its rapid growth to the fact that there aren’t any big bodies of water to inhibit it.
And in those days that Atlanta was growing rapidly, the Tennessee River wasn’t always an asset. It was a wild, bipolar freak of a river that often flooded, swamping cities like Chattanooga and sometimes parts of Knoxville, killing livestock and citizens alike, eroding millions of acres of agricultural land. Back then, before the Tennessee’s mood-stabilizing dams, Georgia wasn’t much interested in sharing the Tennessee with us. It would be like asking a psychopath out to dinner.
Atlanta, which has never known what it’s like to live with a big crazy river, grew. Knoxvillians watched, with some alarm, the arrogant little toy town come to dominate the region, get the big stores and the big airports and the big rock ’n’ roll shows and the big-salary jobs. We didn’t say, “Hey, no fair, give us some of your wonderful flatland.”
If Atlanta now finds itself in a place without sufficient fresh water, all I can do is paraphrase my mom’s way of thinking about regrettable choices: You should have thought about that before you put your megalopolis there.
But, say we feel charitable about it, and I think we have a reason to. As far as I’m concerned, I’d be proud to let Atlanta have access to Knoxville’s downstream water, after we’re all done with it. There’d be something deeply satisfying about that. They can borrow our toothbrush, too. Don’t bother to return it.
Maybe we have a bargain to offer Georgia. Georgia doesn’t have access to much fresh water. Tennessee doesn’t have access to any salt water at all. Let’s say Georgia can have some waterfront on the Tennessee River if Tennessee can get some waterfront on the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s our state’s chief deficiency, I’ve always thought, a good ocean.
We won’t be hogs about it. We’d leave some for Georgia, too, take just a little patch. Jekyll Island, maybe, or Tybee Island, or St. Simon’s. Enough for an international port, and some nice Tennessee beaches. The Vol Navy might gain some credibility among the navies of the world.
Just think about it. For the first time ever, there’d be such a thing as Tennessee seafood. Fried chicken of the sea. Flounder sausage. Salt-cured country clam. And a phrase like “Crab Orchard” wouldn’t sound so melancholy; finally, we could have real crab orchards. I hear a new motto: “Not just mountain oysters anymore.”
I just bet we can work this out somehow. So when is low tide? m