Naming things is hard.
Dogs. Kids. Mountains. Cities. And, apparently, rivers.
Do you want evidence that rivers are hard to name? Go no further than the Smoky Mountains, where within close proximity you can find the Pigeon River, the Little Pigeon River and the Little River.
They really stuck with that theme for all it’s worth.
The Pigeon River is to the North of Sevier County. It starts in Western North Carolina and dumps into the French Broad River near Newport in Cocke County.
The Little River originates in the high mountains up near the North Carolina line. From there, it flows down through Blount County to Townsend and then past my alma mater, Heritage High School towards Knox County where it feeds into the Tennessee River.
Appropriately, the Little Pigeon flows between the two, never leaving the borders of Sevier County. Like its brothers with similar names, the Little Pigeon starts up in the higher elevations near North Carolina. It begins as a series of streams that eventually form a trio of prongs. Finally, the prongs come together to form the Little Pigeon River.
Many people assume the Little Pigeon is a tributary of the Pigeon River. But it also empties into the French Broad, just downstream of Douglas Dam.
What are the three prongs of the Little Pigeon River?
Again, naming things is hard.
The Easternmost prong is called – you guessed it – the East Prong of the Little Pigeon River. It exists entirely within the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Westernmost prong is called the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River and is the most significant prong. It leaves the national park in the Greenbrier region, heading towards the town of Pigeon Forge where the Old Mill used its waters for hydropower in the 1830s. The Old Mill Restaurant and complex are still there today.
In between the West Prong Little Pigeon and the East Prong Little Pigeon is the extremely appropriately named Middle Prong.
Why is it called the Little Pigeon River?
Well, it’s the lesser of the two Pigeon Rivers, hence the “little”. The massive nests of passenger pigeons that made their homes along the banks of the Little Pigeon River and the waterways around Pigeon Forge are the river’s namesake. Both the rivers were named – it’s said – by the Cherokee. But if so, the names were clearly anglicized.
The passenger pigeons – now extinct – used to be the area’s dominant bird species. It’s said their flocks could block out the sun. Some people say the sun could be blocked for days, but that seems like an exaggeration. However, there are reports of flocks so large they blocked out the sun for hours and made conversation under the cacophony of their wings impossible.
The mountains of East Tennessee and places like the Western Prong of Little Pigeon River were the birds’ winter migration destination. In particular, the birds’ affinity for Isaac Love’s forge – where the Old Mill is today – inspired the town’s name.
Today, the birds’ legacy is that of a cautionary tale. The massive populations were hunted out of existence under the mistaken belief that natural populations so vast could not be adversely affected.
As late as 1871, there were estimates of 136 million breeding adults. By Sept. 1, 1914, the last known Passenger Pigeon – a female born in captivity named Martha, passed away in the Cincinnati Zoo.
Can you swim in the Little Pigeon River?
Yes, though I’ve mostly only waded in the Little Pigeon. Growing up in Blount County, our swimming holes were in the deep pools of the Little River, like the Townsend Wye.
But the Little Pigeon River has some of its own swimming holes, including one on the Middle Prong of the river in the Greenbrier.
What kind of fish are in the Little Pigeon River?
There are several fish species in the river, which is known as one of the best trout streams in East Tennessee. It’s important to know where you are so you know which fishing rules to follow. Specifically, Gatlinburg, the state of Tennessee, Pigeon Forge and the National Park Service all have their own regulations.
Sound complicated? It can be. Aside from the three species of trout – rainbow trout, wild brook trout and brown trout – you can catch smallmouth bass in the river as well.
In fact, at a certain point downstream, the Little Pigeon is a much better smallmouth stream than trout steam.
What if I want to take my kid fishing?
Gatlinburg has designated several waterways within the city limits for children (12 and under) for fishing.
The children-only streams are:
West Prong Little Pigeon River, from a point 100 yards upstream of the Herbert Holt Park entrance downstream to the Gatlinburg By-Pass Bridge.
Dudley Creek, from the Highway 441 Bridge downstream to the West Prong Little Pigeon River.
LeConte Creek, from Painters Branch upstream to the national park boundary.
You can also follow the Little Pigeon down to Douglas Lake where anglers can catch smallmouth and largemouth bass, bluegill, carp, catfish, crappie, walleye and others.
Is the river safe?
I mean, I wouldn’t drink from it. But I’ve cooled off in its refreshing waters for years and let my own kids play in the water. Though I will say, I’ve always spent my time further upstream or at the least right at the Gatlinburg side entrance to Pigeon Forge.
Further downstream towards Sevierville, I might be more hesitant. For about 20 years or so, the downstream parts of the river were closed for recreation due to bacteria. Great efforts were made to clean up the river, and today those restrictions have been lifted.
In terms of water activities like tubing or kayaking, it has the same inherent dangers as any other waterway, but I’d say it’s mostly very tame under all but the most extreme circumstances.
Where’s the best place to enjoy the river?
If you’re not including up in the mountains where the prongs are taking the mountain rains and turning them into a proper river, the Riverwalk Greenway in Pigeon Forge is a pretty nice way to soak in some of the natural beauty in a peaceful setting.
The shade-fill trail runs along the river and can be accessed from Patriot Park. It’s good for walking, biking and jogging.
Did you know the history of the Little Pigeon River? Let us know in the comments!