Tennessee-Georgia Border Controversy: A Mistake That Might Reshape the State

the tennessee welcomes you sign next to the new tennessee georgia border

The Tennessee border is supposed to fall along the 35th parallel but a mistake was made by surveyors, costing Georgia access to the Tennessee River and 51-square miles of what it now, but wasn't supposed to be, Tennessee. And Georgia wants it back (photo by AndreyKrav/iStockPhoto, Infographic by TheSmokies.com staff)

The strange mistake that reshaped the state of Tennessee (literally) and why Georgia isn’t happy about it

There’s a dispute along the Tennessee-Georgia border. It goes far beyond the singing of Rocky Top and red-clad adults who like to bark at football games. It’s a water war, y’all, with headwaters that go back more than 200 years.

It’s a dispute that’s tangled with generations of back and forth between the neighboring states. Of course, it’s easy to play it for laughs – as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart did years ago. But it’s a dispute that could have serious ramifications for the way populations across the South grow and spread. As someone who has lived near the Tennessee River, I know just how important that waterway is to the entire South. 

For generations, Georgia officials have tried to rectify an 18th-century surveying mistake that cost the Peach State access to the Tennessee River by a couple of hundred feet. Tennessee politicians have rebuffed those efforts for more than 100 years. However, with the growth of Atlanta and the surrounding metropolitan area, Georgia’s need for water has driven the conflict beyond a quirky curiosity. 

the tennessee georgia border before and after the dispute
If Georgia gets its way, it would regain 51 square miles of what is now Tennessee. They would also gain access to the Tennessee River. However, the move would also turn a few thousand current Tennesseans into Georgians. (Infographic by TheSmokies.com)

The border in question 

Borders are arbitrary things, right? Somewhere generations ago, politicians sat down and drew some fake lines on a map. The people on this side of the line are Tennesseans. People on that side are Georgians.

When Tennessee was established as a state in 1796, the U.S. Congress declared Tennessee’s border to be on the 35th Parallel. That’s all fine and good when you’re in some room in the capital building. However, when you’re out walking around Lookout Mountain, it ain’t like they’ve got the 35th Parallel painted right there for just anyone to see. 

So, around the time Alabama became a state in 1817, they hired a team of guys to come out and survey the land. So that everything was done all nice and proper. Today, they could probably do it with two guys with a pickup truck, a bass boat and a GPS-enabled smartphone. But back then, they needed a team on the ground. And the team on the ground messed up

a tennessee welcomes you road sign
Tennessee welcomes you, but it doesn’t welcome a border change (photo by AndreyKrav/iStockPhoto)

How did the mistake happen?

Well, speaking frankly, they put a mathematician from the University of Georgia on the project. I am kidding. (Yes, we’ve got Georgia jokes.)

Georgia did appoint Professor James Camak to be part of the team. Now, if you know anything about the Tennessee or Georgia legislatures you won’t be surprised to find the team was given outdated equipment. Also, what counts as outdated in 1818 boggles the mind. They must have been out surveying with dowsing rods and voodoo. A member of the team reportedly requested better equipment from the Governor of Georgia but was denied. 

That was a decision that came back to bite the Peach State. The survey was finished, and they didn’t miss it by a lot if you’re being generous. But in surveying, they tend to be sticklers for accuracy. The Tennessee Legislature ratified it but their counterparts in Georgia did not. Tennessee, considered the matter settled. But there were signs early on that there was an issue. 

Georgia asked a survey team working on behalf of North Carolina to meet with the Georgia team and survey the rest of the boundary. They worked their way west towards where the previous work had stopped. It was then that they discovered the other team’s work had stopped a half mile to the north. The surveyors – who didn’t know that Atlanta would eventually be the civic equivalent of SpongeBob on dry land – solved the problem by connecting the two surveys with a vertical, straight line betwixt them. Easy, elegant, no muss, no fuss. That is, until there was quite a lot of fuss.  

A view from Clingmans Dome observation deck
It can be difficult to establish boundaries in some areas without the right tools (photo by Marie Graichen/TheSmokies.com)

Why Georgia wants it redrawn

Well, at first, I believe that it was chiefly a matter of fairness. The border should be what the border was supposed to be, right? Georgia started trying to rectify the border mistake in the 1890s. The problem? The people who lived in Tennessee liked being Tennesseans and nobody in the Tennessee Legislature saw much of a need to change. That land had been in Tennessee for 70 years at that point. Tennessee wasn’t going to just give it away. 

Georgia gave it a shot several times over the ensuing 100+ years. They pushed to have the border reset to the 35th parallel North. That would give access to the Tennessee River via Nickajack Lake, which the current border only misses by about 200 feet at one spot

However, what was once a quirky Southern chest-puffing contest has become more serious over the years. As Atlanta has grown, the ability to get enough water for the region has been severely compromised. There have been some pretty serious droughts that have greatly concerned Georgia officials. 

neyland stadium in orange
Tennesseans can be a bit proud and stubborn (photo by Rachel Taylor/TheSmokies.com)

Why Tennessee is fighting back

It’s complicated. In one corner, there have been some lesser Tennessee politicians who like to chest puff and talk big and see the issue as a chance to look tough. But there are also some serious arguments against it. 

First, Atlanta appears water-thirsty. In 2013, a report indicated that per-capita water use in Chattanooga was 95 gallons a day while in Atlanta, it was 151 gallons a day. How much of that is related to the Coca-Cola Company being in Atlanta? I can’t say. But serious Tennessee officials have said simply moving the border and giving access to Atlanta invites a situation that could put Tennesseans in the same boat. A boat without enough water. 

There’s also the issue of Florida and Alabama. Georgia is somewhat arguing out of both sides of its mouth. Both Florida and Alabama have accused Georgia of over-taking from waterways in the Peach State before they flow south into the neighboring states, harming local economies. It would be hard for Georgia to argue against Tennessee while upholding its position in Florida and Alabama.

Finally, Tennessee officials have said Georgia officials were lax in allowing Atlanta to grow beyond sustainability. Like the dwarves of Moria in “Lord of the Rings” they were too greedy and dug too deep. Now they have a Balrog. But in their case, the Balrog isn’t a mythic beast of rage and fire, but rather just, you know, some pretty severe drought. 

“I don’t know if you’ve met many Tennesseans. But we – in general – don’t respond well to demands and threats. Ever honk at a Tennessean who waited too long at a traffic light? They will slowly look into the rearview assessing just what kind of jackass you are. Then they pull forward slowly, at a snail’s pace blocking you for as long as humanly possible just out of spite.”

John Gullion, Contributor, TheSmokies.com
No Trespassing Keep Out Sign
Tennessee would not ever likely cede land unless courts force them to do so (photo by James Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Will it ever happen?

The moving of the state line? I don’t think so. Experts have indicated that Georgia has threatened to take the issue to the Supreme Court. However, the court has been reluctant to take up such disputes, preferring states to work things out themselves. Mostly the dispute – which could be serious – has been played for a little posturing, a little comedy. 

Ultimately, I think it will take getting to the brink of a fairly serious crisis before anything is done.

I don’t know if you’ve met many Tennesseans. But we – in general – don’t respond well to demands and threats. Ever honk at a Tennessean who waited too long at a traffic light? They will slowly look into the rearview assessing just what kind of jackass you are. Then they pull forward slowly, at a snail’s pace blocking you for as long as humanly possible just out of spite. If Georgia was on fire and demanded Tennessee give it access to water, Tennessee wouldn’t give a drop. That said, Georgia could come to the table asking for help instead of demanding it. And that will draw a more favorable result. 

Ultimately, I think things will get to a place where Georgia is in dire need, and will negotiate a way to buy access to the water at Nickajack. That way, Tennessee will have control and won’t be in danger of being bled dry. Both states will have the infrastructure to get water South in an emergency. 

One day the Supreme Court may be called on to decide the dispute but for now, Tennessee leaders have been resolute that they are not budging or sharing. 

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