About Reelfoot Lake
During the Winter of 1811-12,
It began with a series of earth tremors rumbling along an ancient fault line centered around the little town of New Madrid, Missouri. The tremors climaxed on February 7, 1812, with perhaps the most severe earthquake ever to strike the continental United States. When the earth settled again the scenery had undergone a considerable change, and a new lake stood in the place of what had been a swampy forest of cypress trees, cottonwoods and walnut trees.
The lake came to be called Reelfoot. In the 20th century, it is the location of one of Tennessee's most interesting state resort parks.
"Reelfoot is a very shallow lake," explained one park official. It averages only 5 to 6 feet in depth, about 18 feet at it's deepest. The old forest which stood before the earthquake still lies just beneath the surface and helps make the lake one of the world's greatest natural fish hatcheries. There are more than 56 species of fish in Reelfoot and it is a paradise for both commercial and sport fishermen.
There are a number of fishing camps and resorts located around Reelfoot Lake. Reelfoot Lake State Resort Park offers a resort inn and restaurant actually built out over the shallow lake on concrete pilings. The park has it's own 3,500 foot landing strip, making it accessible by plane as well, and offers campsites in addition to the resort facilities. Boat cruises on Reelfoot and special programs concerning the lake's exceptional environment are also frequently offered by the park.
There were few residents of the area in that Winter of 1811-12, but one of them, Eliza Bryan of New Madrid, described what happened in a letter she wrote to a minister friend:
"Beginning December 16, 1811, there were violent earthquakes in the area throughout the winter months. On some days the atmosphere was so completely saturated with sulfurous vapors as to cause total darkness. Trees cracked and fell into the roaring Mississippi."
Of the cataclysmic February 7, 1812, she wrote, "The waters of the river gathered up like a mountain, rising 15 to 20 feet perpendicularly, then receding within its banks with such violence that it took whole groves of cottonwoods which edged its borders. Fissures in the earth vomited forth sand and water, some closing again immediately. "The Chickasaw Indians, the primary residents of the area in those days and never ones to quarrel with the wrath of gods, had their own version of the lake's creation.
The Chickasaw legend tells of the chieftain named Reelfoot who, during his wanderings, fell in love with a Choctaw princess named Starlight. After being refused her hand in marriage, Reelfoot and his braves kidnapped the princess and brought her to their own land amid the cypress trees near the "Father of the Waters." While celebrating the success of their venture, the Chickasaw legend says, the earth opened up and swallowed the whole tribe and covered their lodges with water.
Whichever story one chooses to believe, the 13,000 acre lake in the northwestern corner of Tennessee is a fascinating journey into unspoiled nature. Much of the area around the lake is a nature preserve filled with more than 240 species of birds. It is a major stopping point for waterfowl migrating to and from Canada, as well as a winter nesting site for hundreds of American Bald Eagles drawn south by the ice-free waters and the plentiful fish.