Drought-stricken Georgia, eyeing Tennessee River, revives old border feud

State lawmakers seek to move part of Georgia's border one mile north into Tennessee.

Patrik Jonsson
Dual chiefs: Randy Bowden (left), police chief of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., confers often with Wallace Taylor, chief of Lookout Mountain, Ga.
Rich Clabaugh

Georgia already owns most of the 88-mile spine of Lookout Mountain, a fabled frontier promontory that overlooks Chattanooga, Tenn.

But now the Peach State wants more, even the 1.6-square-mile nook that makes up the town of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., just north of the town of Lookout Mountain, Ga. Actually, it's not really this crag that Georgia wants, but access to the Tennessee River that flows below it. Tapping the Tennessee could slake Atlanta's thirst as drought strains the megacity.

But the push to correct what Georgia senators – all 52 of them – call a 190-year-old surveying mistake is forcing a confrontation between two sometimes rival states.

Georgia wants to move the entire border northward by more than a mile along a line from just west of Lookout Mountain to near McCaysville, Ga. That appropriation (or land grab) of more than 50 square miles would transform longstanding relationships along one of America's fuzziest stretches of border.

"If you came up with a deed ... that shows that's really your property, most people would pursue it, especially if there was a little gold mine on it," says Georgia state Rep. John Meadows and member of the legislature's natural resources committee. "I'm not going to lie to you: I want water out of the Tennessee River."

Both Georgia chambers introduced bills Feb. 8 to form a commission to investigate the claim.

Deeds given to veterans of the Revolutionary War indicated that the Tennessee River's "Great Bend" west of Lookout Mountain belonged to Georgia, and no one disputes that the original colonial charter to bring Georgia to the 35th parallel fell short by a mile in 1818. That's when a Georgia mathematician named James Camack, possibly bedeviled by warring Indians and log-and-chain measuring devices, drew the wrong line. Camack admitted his mistake in 1826, but three attempts to move the border have failed.

Georgia's latest move is stirring up old cross-state grudges, which include lawsuits over copper-mine pollution and Georgia's refusal to return a famous Confederate locomotive. Tennesseeans are likely to claim a form of adverse possession, where, even between two sovereigns, unclaimed land eventually goes to the neighbor.

If Georgia wants the land, "what they'll have to do is muster the Georgia militia, feed them black-eyed peas and turnip greens, and send them up to storm Lookout Mountain," says Nashville, Tenn., attorney Justin Wilson, only partly tongue-in-cheek. "The point is, you can't rewrite history."

Some see the legislation as a publicity stunt. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue eased watering restrictions for landscapers the same week the legislation was introduced.

Tennesseans say that Atlanta has grown pell-mell at the expense of other Southern states and that the drought reveals Georgia's lack of planning.

"The real issue is the use and conservation of water and responsible land management," says Tennessee state Sen. Andy Berke. "Let's remember that all of us throughout the South have water issues, and that their proposed land deal encroaches on [Tennessee's drought-stricken] Marion County. The cruelest joke is ... when they say, 'Y'all have plenty of water' to a place that was just mowing the lake."

The border feud may ultimately land at the US Supreme Court. In such cases, the court often appoints a special master to play the role of a "bird dog trying to track down all the facts and getting them straight," says Joseph Zimmerman, a political scientist at State University of New York in Albany.

Part of the problem is that a frontier mentality shaped the Georgia-Tennessee border, says Daniel Cates, the unofficial town historian of Lookout Mountain, Ga. In the early 19th century, merchants coming up through Georgia to claim the land were a different bunch than the rough-hewn adventurers claiming turf along the first western frontier.

Moving the border would also have practical effects. Most residents have made a conscious choice about what side of the border to live on, says Tennessee resident Lynn Lantz, in part because Tennessee has no state income tax.

The laws of the two states are "different in every way," says Randy Bowden, police chief of Lookout Mountain, Tenn. If the border shifted, he says he'd have to go to work for his friend, Wallace Taylor, the chief of Lookout Mountain, Ga.

But for those in Georgia, it could be a coup. On the Tennessee side, property values are higher and the town hall there is more modern than the shopworn digs in Georgia. "I wouldn't mind moving in over there," says Dana Driver, town clerk of Lookout Mountain, Ga. "We call it the chalet."

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