Is there a 160 year old city at the bottom of our lake?

May 25, 2014


Is there a city at the bottom of Percy Priest?

It sits at the junction of the East and West Stones River. It was a bustling little town founded just 34 years after our country declared independence. Two friends, Robert Weakley and Thomas Bedford, bought the land and divided it into 80 lots.

The little town of Jefferson was born and began growing. It eventually became the county seat and hub of area commerce. It was even considered as a candidate to be the first state capital. 

Original Lot Layout of Old Jefferson

Original Lot Layout of Old Jefferson

In 1838 it became a part of the Trail of Tears as more than 4,000 Cherokee Indians passed through Main St. as they were forcefully removed from their homes and relocated to reservations in Oklahoma.

Fast forward 160 years and the town had conceded the county seat and it’s “King of area Commerce” title to Murfreesboro. The problem was that the city was landlocked. By the early 1960′s the city had long past it’s glory days.

When the US Army Corps of Engineers decided to construct a dam and create Percy Priest lake the small town of Jefferson was directly in the path of the backwaters. It was projected to be inundated. So, the town was declared eminent domain. All of the buildings were burned down and bulldozed.

And just like that, 160 years of history was wiped off the face of the earth.

In 1966 the dam was completed.

Before/After the Dam

Before/After the Dam

And nothing happened.

What the Corps of Engineers didn’t take into account was a vast network of caves that paralleled the Stones River. When the dam was completed and the water backed up, it filled peaks and valleys for 14,000+ acres.

However, it never reached the old town of Jefferson. The cave system sucked up the water supply originally planned for Jefferson.

As a result the city was never flooded.

The houses, courthouse and every structure in the old city was destroyed…by mistake.



Was this intentional? 

As I was researching the history of Percy Priest Lake for our summer trip to all 32 islands, I kept running across story after story of entire towns resting at the bottom. I had a ton of questions:

  • What were their names?
  • Where were they located?
  • What was their history?
  • Were they still there?

Eventually I came across the name “Old Jefferson.”

Official Percy Priest Wikipedia page

Official Percy Priest Wikipedia page

The Wikipedia page (and many other online sources) state that the town of Old Jefferson lay at the bottom of the lake.

So, I did a few searches at the local library and found this map of Rutherford county from 1916 (50 years before the dam). Then I superimposed it over a current Google Maps image of the lake.

Check out the results:

Old Jefferson (before and after Percy Priest installation)

Old Jefferson (before and after Percy Priest installation)

It definitely never flooded and isn’t at the bottom of the lake.

Trying to find much online about the old city is tough.

So, we are taking a trip there. 

  • How could you dstroy an entire town and be wrong?
  • Is there anyone still living that grew up in the town?
  • Are there any cities actually at the bottom?

We’ll know soon enough!

PS: This is Part 1 of this story. We’ll report back in the next few weeks with some ‘on the ground’ reporting and pictures of what remains of Old Jefferson today.