How can you not want to explore a place named Hog Jaw Valley? It is a remote, rural, agricultural, sparsely populated area where Don and I were “thrown out” of two places. And why would it remind me of the Nile River in Egypt.
My wife and I have a small café in Pelham. Don comes in our café at once or twice a week. Don is the country version of a renaissance man. Dressed in farmer’s coveralls, he can talk (or listen) intelligently on almost any topic, and I have listened intently to his experiences in Korea during the Korean War, years of over-the-road truck driving, bush hogging; and most recently to his memories of growing up in nearby Hog Jaw Valley, Alabama.
Hog Jaw Valley is a great place to explore, but it is not a hot tourist destination! I would not have heard of it except for Don. Here, history is personal.
Earlier, Don brought in a history book titled My Valley, My Home, The History of Hog Jaw Valley (John Hembree, Starkey Printing, Chattanooga, Tenn). This detailed history, written by one of his childhood neighbors, is packed with geographic and historical information, first-hand stories, and dozens of old photographs and images of historical documents.
Don wanted to show me around his childhood “stomping grounds” and suggested we take a drive “out that way,” adding the incentive that “you might get some interesting photos.” Thirty minutes later, we were on the road.
From Pelham, Tenn., we drove about 20 miles, across the New Hope Bridge and the Tennessee River at South Pittsburgh.
Our first stop was Nickajack Dam; part of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s network of dams and lakes along the Tennessee River. Don grew up in the area long before TVA. He explained that each year, the river would flood, leaving behind rich soil in the valley that made for good corn and cotton crops (this reminded me of the history of the Nile and how the people depended on the flooding to revitalize the soil in the Nile valley). Of course, if the river flooded at the wrong time, Don Explained, it could wipe out a year’s harvest. Once TVA dammed the river, the flooding stopped, but the rich valley soil continued to support cotton and corn.
We looked but saw no signs prohibiting us from going on the dam and decided to venture out—I wanted to get photos from the dam. There was a fence and gate near the power turbine building, but the gate was open. From the dam I took photos of a barge leaving the locks.
Suddenly, we heard a voice, “Hey there,” trying to get our attention. A worker had stepped out of the generating plant and was walking toward us. As he approached, he explained we were not supposed to be out on the dam. We assured him we had looked for any signs prohibiting access to the dam and saw none. He was very pleasant and apologized, but also assured us that we would have to leave, but he did not hurry us along, talking and answering questions as we walked. Finally, when he closed the gate behind us, the “No Access” sign was revealed.
Don was amused that we had gotten “thrown off the dam.” Don said when the dam was first built; they could walk out on it with no restrictions.
From the dam we followed Route 156 over the highway-railroad causeway around the base of Sand Mountain where we were able to see the entrance to Nickajack Cave at the base of the mountain. The cave was flooded by the Nickajack Lake, but approximately twenty feet of its opening is visible above the water line.
This is a huge cave that was used by early Indians, either for shelter or storing materials. It was later exploited by Civil War era salt peter mining. Prior to flooding, several archeological surveys were made in the cave, but any signs of Indian use were largely destroyed by the mining. Don described exploring the cave and said that the ceiling was higher than they could hit with a thrown rock. In the early years of Lake Nickajack, the cave entrance was an attraction visited by busy tour boats. Today, the entrance is fenced off, prohibiting boats from entering the cave.
We turned up State Route 91 into Hog Jaw Valley; Don pointing out various landmarks as we drove.
It was interesting, and occasionally sad. “This is where I went to school,” he said, pointing to an open overgrown field. Fortunately, the history book of the valley had photos of the school on the property.
Tomorrow: Part 2 and how I was “thrown off” the railroad tracks.