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A Brief History of Nashville’s Parks

A Brief History of Nashville’s Parks

The Long View from Luke Lea Heights

“A culture is no better than its woods.”

W.H. Auden


10,000 chances, give or take. That’s how many have come and gone to perch atop the patch of planet now known as Luke Lea Heights in Nashville’s Percy Warner Park on the day that autumn colors reach their peak. The prominence itself, a hunk of Ordovician limestone and chert that rises to 922 feet above sea level, is, of course, ridiculously older than a mere 10 millennia -- a space-time cosmic pittance from even a little mountain’s point of view -- but the surrounding forests, or at least the contemporary bits and pieces that pass for woods these days, are not.

The deciduous trees of Middle Tennessee that blaze so brightly come fall only arrived some 10,000 years ago when the climate shifted and the coniferous forests retreated north. The folks already living here -- we call them Paleo-Indians although they certainly would have had their own names for themselves -- had to adapt or die. They adapted, changing the size and shape of their spear points as megafauna like mastodons died out and smaller, more nimble creatures such as elk and bison and white-tailed deer moved in. Some prehistoric genius even invented the atlatl, putting rabbits and turkeys and squirrels on the menu, a leap of technology so profound that we now call the people of this period the Archaic Indians.

These people would have summited Luke Lea Heights often during those first few centuries of peak fall colors, perhaps enjoying the foliage but certainly taking advantage of the birds-eye view of what lies to the north, checking for signs of game on the move or campfire smoke from rival bands. The contours of the Cumberland, flowing more than 500 feet below, would be clearly discernible, defined by the low, undulating hills along its banks. Beyond the river, the treetops of the forest that filled the fertile Nashville Basin would have extended for miles, stretching to the horizon where the view comes to an abrupt end along the surrounding Highland Rim.

For close to 9,800 years, the view from Luke Lea Heights would not have changed much. Sure, clearings would have come and gone as fires, both wild and manmade, burned through. And, for a few centuries beginning some eight or nine centuries ago, some mounds and towns and palisades would have appeared along the river where its oxbows form peninsulas, naturally defending the people of the Mississippian culture on three sides as they grew their corn and squash and beans and set about socially stratifying themselves. But the squares and straight lines that these folks imposed upon the swirls and whorls and curves of nature with their rectangular houses of wattle and daub and planned plazas for central temples would not last, and they were gone before any Europeans showed up.

The empire of straight lines and ninety-degree angles would not permanently begin to transform the view from Luke Lea Heights until the spring of 1780 when a flotilla of flatboats arrived at a place called Fort Nashborough. Then things changed quickly; Bur and white oaks still living in Nashville today -- both species can survive well into their upper 300s -- already stood tall and strong in 1819, the year a sharp-eyed observer on Luke Lea Heights might have seen the smoke rising from the first steamboat to paddle up the Cumberland, and the trees larger still in 1859 when the Tennessee State Capitol was completed, and in 1862 when Fort Negley was built, and in 1897 when the Tennessee Centennial celebrated 100 years of statehood by building a full-scale replica of the Parthenon on a former racehorse track that would become, in 1903, Nashville’s first public park, Centennial.

By the early 20th century, it would have been clear to an observer on Luke Lea Heights that industrialization and urbanization were quickly transforming the landscape, and that those who could afford to do so were building spacious, new homes in suburbs like Belle Meade. A 1913 map of streetcar lines, produced by the Nashville Railway and Light Co., a transportation and utility business owned by a man named Percy Warner, clearly shows a proposed line of tracks heading straight for the base of the hill. But the streetcars would never get there; the automobile arrived first and “solved” our mass transportation issues. Then, in 1927, Percy Warner’s son-in-law, Luke Lea, a U.S. Senator and founder and publisher of the Tennessean, deeded 868 acres -- including the eponymous Luke Lea Heights -- to Nashville’s Park Board, a gift that began Nashville’s eventual rise to 39.6 acres of public park per 1,000 residents, placing Music City in the top tier of American cities with the highest ratio of parkland to residents.

These days, from the top of Luke Lea Heights, particularly when the leaves have cleared from the trees’ branches after peak fall day of 2021 -- estimated this year to come between October 18th and October 25th -- you can still look to the north and see in the middle distance not only giant cranes delivering to downtown ever more steel and glass skyscraper babies, but also the general locations of Nashville’s still-growing network of parks and greenways: far off to the northwest, the beautiful, wild and hilly Beaman, fully nestled inside the Highland Rim; much nearer to the north, the gentle, rolling meadows of Bells Bend, tucked at the tip of a peninsula where Mississippian mounds once stood; to the northeast, the flat floodplain of Shelby, a welcome swath of saving green -- except for when the Cumberland River decides otherwise -- for Nashville’s densely packed, urban East.

These and Nashville’s many other parks -- currently numbering 185 and weighing in at just under 16,000 acres -- are the subject of a series here in The Pamphleteer for the rest of the year. We’ll cover the best places to go and the most interesting things to do once you’re there. We’ll also have helpful suggestions and easy-to-use links for how you can get involved. For our parks, opportunities and hope abound, but so do challenges and threats.

At the end of the day, public parks are only as good as the public who support them, and, at The Pamphleteer, we contend that now is the time for all good children to come to the aid of their playgrounds. So please be on the watch for part two of the series. As for now, consider enjoying the peak fall colors from atop Luke Lea Heights. The overview has now been a public park for about 1% of all those special, peak fall days and, as a member of the public, you are invited to be a one-percenter, too.