THE CIVIL WAR ERA
Nashville Depot occupied by Federal troops
In recent years Radnor Lake State Natural Area’s 1,300+ acres of trails and forests provide a peaceful and scenic retreat. However, during the Civil War (1861-1865) this land witnessed fierce fighting, raids, and destruction due to its proximity to Granny White Pike, the Franklin Turnpike, and the Nashville & Decatur (now CSX) railroad. Both Confederate and Union armies maneuvered up and down these vital transportation routes throughout the war. Farms in this area fell victim to foragers from both armies, and enslaved people escaped to the safety of the Union lines.
Nashville was captured by the United States Army on February 6, 1862 after General U.S. Grant captured Fort Henry and Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River. Nashville became a boom town within months and the population swelled from 17,000 to over 100,000. All troops and war material to fight the Confederacy came through Nashville due to its railroad system and its location on the Cumberland River. Nashville became the third most fortified city on the continent after Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia.
Union line on the second day of the Battle of Nashville
The Battle of Franklin, on November 30, 1864, crippled the Confederates when General John Bell Hood suffered more than 6,000 casualties in a futile frontal assault on the Union line lead by General John M. Schofield. Nevertheless, Hood followed Schofield as he withdrew north along the Franklin Turnpike to Union General George H. Thomas’s defenses on the southern outskirts of Nashville. Hood’s campaign ended at the Battle of Nashville when Thomas crushed his army on December 15–16. On the afternoon of December 16, the Confederate line was broken on Shy’s Hill and mass panic began in the retreat. Hood retreated south through the Overton Hills which make up present-day Radnor Lake State Natural Area. The U.S. Cavalry was ordered to block the Confederate retreat by heading south on Granny White Pike. This is known as the “Battle of the Barricades” and was marked by fierce skirmishes moving south which lasted well into the night of December 16. The only open retreat route for the Confederate troops west of Granny White was a country road that ran through a gap in the hills at present day Lakeview Drive and extended through this park. Confederate troops that were not killed or captured during the retreat rejoined the Confederate Army at present day Brentwood.
Tennessee Civil War Trails features markers at key points of interest. Nashville’s Civil War Trail has a marker located near the Radnor Lake Visitor’s Center. It can be found near the ADA accessible parking in the West Parking Lot. Each stop tells the story of the war’s interesting people, places, and events. A free map guide to the Tennessee Trails network is available in the Visitor Center.
THE RAILROAD ERA
The Main Valve located inside the Valve House
In 1913, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) purchased 1,000 acres in the Overton Hills south of Nashville. L&N had just completed a railroad line from Decatur, Alabama to south Nashville. The plan was to build a reservoir large enough to supply water for its steam engines at nearby Radnor Yards. The basin below two ridges provided the location. Otter Creek flowed through this basin, and over the next three years (1914-1917) manpower and horsepower provided the countless hours needed to build the earthen dam and reshape the landscape. Inside the dam is a concrete and metal framework holding the pipes that allowed water to be drained from the lake. A large metal valve was turned by hand to control the flow of water to the rail yard. At the height of its use around 1,000,000 gallons of water was drained from the lake daily. As diesel engines became the standard, a large reservoir was obsolete and L&N eventually sold the lake and surrounding hills to a developer.
Visit the Historic Valve House Trail (.2 mi) to see Radnor Lake’s industrial complex and to learn more about its function during the era of the steam engine.
THE PRESERVATION ERA
As Radnor Lake began to fill and water flowed to the steam engines, something unexpected happened. Birds began to discover Radnor Lake as a feeding and resting place during their annual migration. Efforts to preserve the Radnor Lake area began in 1923 when the executive vice president of L&N Railroad declared the site a “Wildlife Sanctuary” at the request of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Executives with the railroad and their friends (The Sportsman’s Club) used the sanctuary for fishing, but a reverence for the beauty of the area was present even then among L&N families and neighbors who lived in the surrounding hills. During the 60 years that L&N owned the property, Radnor Lake went almost unnoticed by the greater community. Neighbors quietly hiked around the lake and over the hills, enjoying the songbirds, wildflowers and wildlife that found refuge there.
In 1971, the Estes-Taylor Co. purchased an option on approximately 800 acres owned by Oman Construction Company. Oman had purchased the land 10 years earlier from L&N Railroad and made plans to subdivide the property for a housing development. The Oman plans were not accepted by the city of Oak Hill, but subsequent plans from Estes-Taylor Co. were. After talking with a group of biologists led by Dr. Oliver Yates about the importance of preserving Radnor Lake in its natural state, Frank Taylor dropped his option on the property.
Over the next two years, a monumental effort was made to preserve the 747-acre tract of land as a natural area. Private citizens, scientists from local colleges and universities, state government officials, local land owners, and environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy worked to raise funds to purchase the land. They organized a benefit folk concert held at Vanderbilt University, a rock concert sponsored by WKDA, cake sales, house to house canvassing and made personal contributions. Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops organized fundraising events. Children sold lemonade and donated the proceeds to Radnor Lake. The Massey Investment Co., which held a purchase option on the land, extended the deadline to August 16, 1973, allowing extra weeks to raise the purchase price of $3.4 million. Clarence Edmonds and Fred Webber, owners of the option, eventually made personal contributions to the Radnor Lake Preservation Fund. The effort was a true collaboration. In the end, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation provided $1.3 million dollars, the federal Department of the Interior provided $1.9 million and private citizens raised the remaining $513,000 to reach the $3.4 million purchase price. (Included in the $513,000 was $113,000, the cost of the option.) Land owner Stirton Oman kicked the campaign off with a gift of $100,000, the largest individual gift in the campaign. Developers willingly gave up their options on the land. Radnor Lake State Natural Area was established in 1973 as Tennessee’s first official State Natural Area.
Since its beginning in 1973, with the help of the State of Tennessee, Friends of Radnor Lake and generous neighbors, Radnor Lake State Natural Area has grown by more than 520 acres. These land acquisitions have protected populations of wildlife and waterfowl including the majestic bald eagles that have been seen fishing the lake. Stands of scarce wildflowers such as blood root have been preserved, and the construction of a cell tower over the South Cove Trail was stopped. In late 2011, the State of Tennessee officially added 37 acres of undeveloped property to Radnor Lake State Natural Area. FORL donated the new acreage, now known as Harris Ridge in honor of the Harris family that owned the property for more than 40 years, to the state after purchasing it in 2010. The addition of this property prevents intrusive development that would threaten portions of the natural area’s watershed and view shed and will preserve the property permanently in its natural state. Partial funding for the land acquisition came from a partnership with the State of Tennessee, plus the Cal Turner Family Foundation, Adams Family Foundation, and FORL. Harris Ridge is the largest piece of property purchased since 2001 for Radnor Lake and is one of the last major untouched, natural tracts near the park. With funding from FORL and its partners, we have supported the park by purchasing supplies and equipment such as spotting scopes and tools for Volunteer Days. Environmental education has been furthered through the Junior Ranger Intern Program, water quality studies and weekly programming opportunities. The number of visitors has risen from 48,000 in 1979 to more than 1 million annually today. Today visitors can enjoy the beauty of Radnor Lake because of the wisdom and forethought of the many people who have loved this land over the past 100 years.