Shaped By Water and Earth: Lake County, Tennessee

Dominated by water — the Mississippi River marking its western and northern borders and Reelfoot Lake its northeastern side — Lake County, Tennessee, is a refuge for anglers, boaters, and lovers of nature. It’s home to two national wildlife refuges, Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge, and Reelfoot Lake State Park.

Lake County is the northwestern boundary of Tennessee, bordering Missouri and Kentucky. Approximately equidistant between St. Louis and Memphis and due west of Nashville, it’s an easy-going, rural place where slowing down won’t seem out of the ordinary.

Reelfoot Lake is a unique body of water. The lake is, in geological terms, newly born. It was formed by the great New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812, which were a series of three major quakes in the area that all registered around 7.0 or higher on the Richter scale. There were also hundreds of powerful aftershocks. They are the strongest quakes on record in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, so powerful that church bells in Boston, Massachusetts — over 1,200 miles away — rang from the energy released.

Today the 15,000-acre lake and its surrounding wetlands is an unusual flooded-forest ecosystem, home to a diverse population of aquatic plants, fish, marine life, and particularly migratory birds. Reelfoot is a destination for bird watchers, especially in the winter for its American bald eagle population and in the fall for its white pelicans, though dozens of other species can be seen.

There are resorts in the area and boat rentals available. The most common fish in the lake include crappie, large-mouth bass, and catfish, though there are a wide variety of other fish to be had.

The nearby 1,850-acre Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge is also an important breeding ground for migratory birds and was also created during the New Madrid earthquakes. It is a shallow, swampy area perfect for ducks and other waterfowl. Unlike Reelfoot, which includes hiking trails and amenities, Lake Isom is largely undeveloped and will thrill those who want to spend time in nature on nature’s terms.

The county seat of Lake County is Tiptonville — population approximately 2,500 —where one can find restaurants, motels, and other amenities. The Reelfoot Lake Arts and Crafts Festival, held in late September/early October, attracts upwards of 40,000 visitors annually.

Also of interest near Tiptonville is the birthplace of Carl Lee Perkins, the rockabilly icon who was part of the Sun Records Studio scene most famous for launching the career of Elvis Presley. Perkins, whose parents were local sharecroppers, wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” and many other rock-n-roll standards. He was inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.

A little north of Tiptonville is the Battle of Island Number Ten Monument, which commemorates a key battle in the Civil War. The island itself has been eroded away by the Mississippi, but at the time it was a significant fortification held by the Confederates that impeded Union attempts to move south on the Big Muddy. Its capture by Union forces under the command of John Pope in April of 1862 was the first position on the Mississippi captured by Union forces and opened the river up to further encroachments.

Only 30 miles from Tiptonville to the east is Union City, home of Discovery Park of America, a 100,000-square-foot history and natural science educational facility. There is a wide range of exhibitions, including a theater simulation of the 1811–12 earthquakes and a 20,000-gallon aquarium that recreates the Reelfoot Lake ecosystem.