Home to heroes and legends from all walks of life, The Screaming Eagle Trail will take you on a journey through the real history and culture of Middle Tennessee.
On December 25, 1779, a small party of settlers led by James Robertson and John Donelson arrived at a bluff just beyond the “French Lick”—a name given to the area that reflected the French fur trappers and traders operating there—to establish Fort Nashborough.
This small, stockade-style fort was a forerunner to the settlement that would become the city of Nashville. Named in honor of General Francis Nash, a hero of the American Revolution, the fort defended approximately 20 log cabins. The ancient forests were rich with wildlife, but cultivating crops was a constant struggle. Corn became the staple crop for the settlers, who used it for food as well as to make whiskey.
Native Americans resented the settlers’ encroachment on their hunting grounds and attacked the settlement. In April 1781, a party of Chickamauga warriors used a clever diversion to lure most of the men out of the fort, who were then attacked by a second, hidden war party. Scared by the sudden gunfire, the settler’s horses bolted for the fort. While the fort’s men tried to escape with their wounded, many of their horses were captured by the Chickamaugas.
Charlotte, the wife of Col. James Robertson, realized the danger and set loose a pack of dogs which attacked and distracted the war party and allowed the rest of the fort’s men to escape back to safety. The fight became known as the “Battle of the Bluffs.” The Cumberland Compact, a precursor to the Tennessee State Constitution, was signed and officially adopted at Fort Nashborough in 1780, establishing governance over the area. Today, a completely reconstructed Fort Nashborough can be visited to explore life in the earliest days of Nashville.
Buildings, bridges, railroads and tools—nearly everything needed on the frontier was made from iron. And in Middle Tennessee iron ore was plentiful, as was the limestone needed to make it pure and strong. Erin, Dover, and Cumberland Furnace were all major Middle Tennessee iron industry towns that helped to supply the earliest foundations of an expanding American frontier.
Furnaces used to smelt the ore, as well as kilns that made lime for removing impurities from the ore, dotted the landscape as iron became the state’s first prosperous industry. And leading the industry was Montgomery Bell, the state’s legendary “Iron Man.”
In 1802, Bell bought famed settler James Robertson’s interest in the Cumberland Iron Works, and opened many more as his empire grew. Bell’s iron works, where hundreds of slaves performed most of the labor, shipped iron as far as the Midwest and Southeast along the Tennessee River. Cannonballs from Bell’s iron works were bought by the U.S. Army and Navy, and were used in the War of 1812.
His wealth in land and timber, large workforce of slaves—and his ownership of large areas of land that offered easy access to the river for shipping iron—helped to make Bell’s enterprise very successful, and helped Tennessee become the third largest producer of industrial iron in the United States by the mid 19th century.
Bell’s legacy can still be seen in Middle Tennessee today: his will left funds for establishing Montgomery Bell Academy, which remains a prestigious educational institution on Nashville’s west side. And Montgomery Bell State Park in Dickson County is rich with history, including the site of the Old Laurel Furnace. The remains of many other iron works can be found along the Screaming Eagle Trail, like the Bear Spring Furnace and the Great Western Furnace, which operated until the late 1800s.
One of America’s most magnificent public buildings is the Tennessee State Capitol, designed by Philadelphia architect William Strickland and constructed from 1845 to 1859e. The Capitol is widely considered the state’s finest example of Greek Revival architecture, and The American Society of Civil Engineers has listed the building as a landmark in recognition of its innovative construction, including the use of locally made wrought iron (instead of then commonly used wood) in the roof trusses to reduce the risk of destruction by fire.
Tennessee was the last state to leave the Union and join the Confederacy in 1861, and Nashville became an immediate Union target during the Civil War for both strategic and symbolic reasons: As the primary shipping port on the Cumberland River it was a valuable asset for supplying Union army lines, and as the capital of Tennessee, capturing the city would help to demoralize the Confederacy and extend Federal control into the Southeast.
By February 1862, U.S. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s forces were already on the move toward Nashville. First they captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, and began advancing toward Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, a major Confederate garrison defended by thousands of soldiers.
Determined Confederate resistance stopped Grant from taking the fort immediately. When Confederate commanders, due to their own confusion, failed to break Grant’s lines, some escaped with their soldiers while Gen. Simon Buckner stayed to surrender the remainder. Buckner asked for terms of surrender, to which Grant replied “No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” The official surrender was conducted at the nearby Dover Hotel, now referred to locally as the “Surrender House.” Gen. U.S. Grant became a household name in the North and gained a new nickname:” Unconditional Surrender” Grant.
The fall of Fort Donelson helped to set the stage for the fall of Confederate Tennessee: Later in the same month, Nashville became the first Confederate state capital to be captured and occupied by Union troops. Nashville also became a center for African American emancipation as thousands of slaves escaped to Union lines. Over the next two years newly freed slaves helped the U.S. army extend a railroad supply line from Nashville to the Tennessee River at the military depot of Johnsonville, named for Union military governor Andrew Johnson.
In 1864, forces under the command of C.S. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked the Johnsonville depot from a position on the opposite side of the Tennessee River. The Union Commander ordered the destruction of the depot’s supplies to prevent their capture by the Confederates, and Johnsonville was essentially destroyed by the battle and ensuing flames. Today the former town’s location is now Johnsonville State Historic Park, where the original fortifications made by Union forces during their occupation have been preserved and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
After the end of the Civil War, the Freedman’s Bureau was established in 1865 to assist former slaves in their transition to freedom. Recognizing that education would be essential to establishing a new life outside of slavery, the bureau created and maintained new schools for freedmen. One of those communities—Promise Land—was established just north of Charlotte in Dickson County.
Education offered freedmen a chance to not only learn how to read and write, but to work beyond physical labor, earn a better living, and compete in society. Today, four historically black colleges and universities (“HBCUs”) in the Nashville area produce graduates from many different backgrounds and ethnicities, and remain a driving force of African-American education.
Barely six months after the end of the Civil War, the Fisk School—now called Fisk University—was established in Nashville, and named in honor of General Clinton B. Fisk of the Tennesse.
Freedmen’s Bureau. The largest private and historically African-American institution for educating health professionals and scientists in the United States also calls Nashville home: Meharry Medical College was founded in Nashville in 1876 as a part of Central Tennessee College, and was chartered separately by 1915. American Baptist College dates to the turn of the century and produced such key national civil rights leaders as John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and C. T. Vivian.
Tennessee State University (commonly referred to as “TSU”) is a comprehensive, co-educational university that was founded in Nashville in 1912. TSU is the alma mater of gold medal Olympian Wilma Rudolph, who was one of the most famous of the school’s “Tigerbelle” track stars. TSU celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2012, and now attracts students from across the United States and around the world to its stellar academic, music, and sports programs.
No Middle Tennessee historic pilgrimage is complete without a visit to the Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, the most famous and longest-running country music broadcast in the history. Before its glory as the stage of the Opry beginning in 1943, the building first opened in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle. The lovingly restored theatre is now a museum and performance center where musicians still take the stage for all to enjoy.
Fisk University anchored a growing and vibrant center of African-American culture, and as a result, nearby Jefferson Street became a center of African-American culture and commerce. Famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Little Richard—and even up and coming acts at the time like Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Wonder—were regular performers in the Jefferson Street clubs up until the 1960s.
After desegregation, African-Americans were no longer constrained to small sections of the city and could begin to buy homes and start businesses with freedom. This along with a new interstate corridor cutting through the neighborhood helped bring the golden age of Jefferson Street to an end. Today the Jefferson Street neighborhood hosts a popular annual Jazz & Blues Festival every June that still brings major music stars back to its stages. And nearby Swett’s, the city’s oldest minority-owned restaurant, still offers down-home Southern soul food.
Of Tennessee’s many cultural gifts to the world, none has made more of an impact than country music. Two lady legends of music rose to fame along the Screaming Eagle Trail, making a name not only for themselves but increasing the popularity of country music around the world. One of the most influential, successful and acclaimed female vocalists of the 20th century, Patsy Cline was an American country music singer who enjoyed incredible success with the “Nashville Sound” during the early 1960s. Her hits include “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams.”
Cline was not only a star talent, but a shrewd businesswoman as well. Music show promoters were notorious for leaving performers unpaid, but it was said that “You don’t mess with the Cline,” as Patsy insisted she was paid in advance and would refuse to perform unless the promoter did so. Patsy Cline died in 1963 in a private airplane crash near Camden, at the height of her career. Ten years after her death, she became the first female solo artist inducted into the
Country Music Hall of Fame®. And in the fifty years since her death, her albums have sold millions upon millions of copies all around the globe.
Born the second of eight children in rural Kentucky, Loretta Lynn grew up in a poor coal mining family during the Great Depression and was already married by the age of 15. An accomplished singer in church, her husband encouraged Loretta to learn the guitar. Loretta made her way to Nashville and found an influential new friend in the legendary Patsy Cline. Many of Loretta Lynn’s albums—like “Coalminer’s Daughter” and “Lead Me On”—were certified as gold records and kept her popularity growing through 1960s and 70s.
More recently, her widely praised album “Van Lear Rose,” produced by Grammy-nominated Rock artist, and Nashville resident, Jack White, helped to introduce her incredible talents to a whole new generation. Today admirers can visit her beautiful farm located right on the Screaming Eagle Trail, Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, which celebrates the life and career of one of the most beloved female performers in country music.
And the Screaming Eagle Trail is also home to two lady legends of sports. Clarksville is the home of Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic gold medal winner in track and field. Born prematurely, she developed pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio all before the age of six, and wore a brace on her left leg until she was nine. Rudolph overcame all of these challenges and became a star basketball player in high school.
She was discovered by Coach Ed Temple, a Tennessee sports legend in his own right. Based on her exceptional athletic abilities, Rudolph received a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where Coach Temple led the “Tigerbelles” track and field team to 34 national titles. Rudolph became a world track star in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics as the first American woman to ever win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic games. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and a portion of U.S. Route 79 in Clarksville was renamed “Wilma Rudolph Boulevard” in her honor.
The all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball among both men and women, Patricia “Pat” Head Summitt is from Henrietta. She grew up near Ashland City in a farming family, and the hard work on the farm and the high standards held by her father helped Summitt learn to set even higher goals for herself.
An Olympic basketball gold medalist and coach, Summitt was named Head Coach of the Lady Vols in 1974 when she was only 22 years old. She led the team to 16 SEC Championships, 15 SEC Tournament Championships, and eight NCAA National Championships. In her honor, a portion of Highway 12 that runs through Ashland City has been renamed “Pat Head Summitt Parkway.”
February 24, 1978 is a day that will never be forgotten by the citizens of Waverly. On that date, a derailed railway tank car exploded and killed 16 people, including the town of Waverly’s fire and police chiefs as they attempted to help contain the fire. Many buildings were also destroyed in the explosion. The Waverly Train Explosion Memorial is a museum in a restored L&N caboose located in downtown Waverly that features vivid photos and compelling stories of the disaster.
Today, heroes still live here and protect the nation. One of the most prestigious and decorated divisions in the U.S. Army, the 101st Airborne Division is an infantry division trained for air assault operations based at Fort Campbell, home to more than 30,000 active-duty soldiers and their families. Like the bald eagle they are named for, the “Screaming Eagles” are known for their power, skill and speed.
Once a main connector for traffic between downtown and East Nashville, the Shelby Street Pedestrian Bridge was restored and reopened in 2003 as a pedestrian-only bridge. Stroll across the Cumberland River for beautiful views of downtown and LP Field, home of the Tennessee Titans. The view of the river and bustling downtown is a powerful reminder of the changes Nashville has seen, from humble fort to modern skyscrapers and pioneers to performers, since the late 1700s.
From military history to music, art, and more, you’re sure to find a perfect piece of Tennessee for everyone among the legends and heroes of the Screaming Eagle Trail.