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New Watershed Path traces Chattanooga's roots with help from NSDAR chapter

Left to right: Dr. Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Science and Education; representing the Chickamauga Chapter of the NSDAR - Carol Rogers, former regent; Joye Duke, regent; and Barbie Standefer, special project grants chair; and Aggie Stephenson, Tennessee Aquarium grants officer. (Image: Thom Benson)

The Tennessee River, like other major waterways around the world, has long served as a cradle of civilization. For thousands of years, people have been drawn to the banks of the river because of the area’s natural beauty and abundant biological riches.

A new interpretive trail, the Watershed Path, was dedicated at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute yesterday. This short walking trail offers a chance to appreciate the region’s history while gaining a better understanding of its ecological and historic roots.

The concept for the Watershed Path emerged before construction began on the Aquarium’s freshwater science center, which opened in October 2016.

“While a team of archaeologists were conducting a comprehensive cultural assessment of this location, we recognized the opportunity to tell others about the site’s historic significance,” said Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation Science and Education. “Although there was no evidence of a permanent settlement at the site, the team did find pottery shards and ancient fire pits that indicate people camped at this spot more than 3,000 years ago.”

Humans may have visited the riverside site as early as 8,000 years ago during the Middle Archaic period. Then, as now, the location was a verdant paradise of plants and animals. Clean drinking water was abundant, and the river’s surrounding woods and wetlands served as an abundant resource for food, shelter, and tool-making.

However, the archaeological evidence suggests this particular spot was only used as a short-term campsite. Long periods of time — some as short as a few months, others stretching for centuries — might pass before the next campers would happen upon this location.

Archaeology is just one aspect highlighted on the Watershed Path. Five interpretive panels lead visitors on a journey tracing the early history of “first terrace” communities. These placards reveal how waterways shape our world and demonstrate how today’s communities thrive along, and are dependent upon, healthy river systems.

The Aquarium received a $10,000 grant from the Chickamauga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to research and produce the Watershed Path. The organization’s involvement stems from a desire to educate future generations about the area’s historic and ecological significance. “Our members are happy that our organization could participate in the development of permanent educational materials relating to our local history,” said Barbie Standefer, Special Project Grants Chairman for Chickamauga Chapter DAR.

“Historic Preservation, Education and Patriotism are the encompassing principles of the National Society Daughters of the America Revolution, and Conservation is one of the nearly 40 NSDAR National Committees through which local Chapter members accomplish their community service work,” said Joye Duke, Regent, Chickamauga Chapter DAR. “For these reasons, Chickamauga Chapter members have been excited to be a part of the development of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Watershed Path through the sponsorship of the grant from our National Society.”

Thanks to the grant, the conservation institute now serves not only as a hub of aquatic conservation efforts in the Southeast but a place where visitors can better understand the area’s history and the millennia-long, intimate relationship humans have had with the Tennessee River.

“We are grateful for such a generous donation from the NSDAR to help us celebrate the cultural significance of this site,” said Dr. George. “Healthy rivers have always been essential – here in the Moccasin Bend/Williams Island area of the Tennessee River Gorge and around the world. Reflecting on our history helps us be mindful of our role as stewards of the incredible natural resources that surround us, and how we all need to work together to ensure these treasures are protected for the future.”

The Watershed Path is free and open to the public Monday through Friday each week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed on major holidays. Due to limited parking, please contact hbw@tnaqua.org to schedule group visits to the Watershed Path.)

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