Blog

The Story of the Hill

10/05/21

The Story of the Hill

By Adventure Science Center

StoryoftheHill

You are here: The hill upon which you are standing is called St. Cloud Hill, which has historically been home to Fort Negley and the subsequent Bass Street Community neighborhood. Today, this area is home to Adventure Science Center and Fort Negley Park. 

You might think of Tennessee as a landlocked state, as it sits over 400 miles from the nearest ocean. But, in the distant, geologic past, Nashville was prime coastal real estate with ocean views. Around 450 million years ago, what is now North America was just south of the equator in a shallow, tropical sea. Rock outcrops here on St. Cloud Hill contain fossil evidence of corals that grew on the floor of the Caribbean-like sea that covered middle Tennessee during that time. Other invertebrate organisms including snails, crinoids, and brachiopods, thrived here as well.  Their fossilized remains are embedded in a sedimentary rock layer of limestone that has created what is called the Nashville Dome. This dome is a signature geologic feature of this region referring to the dome cause by underlying sedimentary rock layers that dip downward from Nashville and are subject to high erosion, creating outcrops and hills such as our very own St. Cloud Hill.

With an elevation of 623 feet, it is presumed that St. Cloud Hill may have been used by Native American groups for defensive and hunting lookout and other means of achieving a strategic advantage of high ground. However, due to the proximity to fresh water and the poor soil condition of the hill, coupled with the very disturbed (destructive impact caused by previous activities such as clearing for land-use) surface, little or no evidence of Native American occupation (long-term use or habitation on a site) has been recovered through archaeological techniques. Other local sites, such as the Jefferson Street Bridge site, boast evidence of an impressive Mississippian occupation (between 1100 to 550 years ago).

One documented cultural history of St. Cloud Hill is the story of the displaced and the disenfranchised, along with efforts to revitalize and reawaken its rich history.

Following Euro-American settlement in this region, indigenous lands were divided into 640-acre tracts as early as 1794. The tract that included St. Cloud Hill was eventually sold to Judge John Overton in 1828. The property remained undeveloped until the Civil War, when the Federal army occupied Nashville in February 1862. To fortify the city and protect the railroad, a vital conduit for moving men and military supplies, they built Fort Negley. 

FortNegley

Perhaps one of the most notable of many stories associated with Fort Negley began shortly after the Union seized Nashville. Of the several forts constructed in the area, Fort Negley was recognized as the largest masonry fortification built west of Washington, DC. For the duration of the war, Fort Negley was never directly attacked; it did, however, play a significant role during the Battle of Nashville.

Completed in December of 1862, the construction of Fort Negley is an incredible story of the courage and sacrifice of those African Americans who lived, worked, fought, and died, in Nashville during the war. Thousands of men and women fled to the city from places as far away as Alabama following Federal occupation. Upon arriving, most were impressed as involuntary laborers by the Federal army to build forts and entrenchments that ringed Nashville. They were also forced to live in the squalid and disease-infested conditions of a hastily built contraband camp here on the St. Cloud hillside.  For months they worked side-by-side in labor battalions clearing trees, building stone walls, and hauling away trash and other debris. Living out of old army tents, they tried to make the camp a home, cooking food, mending clothes, and giving birth to their children along the way. Hundreds of these former slaves and freedman died from exposure, disease, and accidents building Fort Negley. Yet, many of the able-bodied men who survived then enlisted as United States Colored Troops and fought for their freedom on the battlefields of Nashville and beyond.

StoryoftheHill2

When the fort was decommissioned and abandoned in 1867, many of the refugees and contraband workers, along with newly freed slaves arriving from surrounding plantations following emancipation, remained. Some of these individuals and families stayed on the hill out of necessity, others remained by choice. Together, they founded what is widely accepted as one of the earliest African American communities in post-Civil War Nashville, the Bass Street Community located on the eastern flank of the Edgehill neighborhood.

StoryoftheHill3

After the turn of the twentieth century, Bass Street grew and prospered. Like any other community it was a place where families raised their children, sent their kids to school, and attended neighborhood churches. There were black-owned barber shops and playgrounds, doctor offices and grocery stores. People yelled at ball games, sang spirituals passed down for generations, got married, and served as pall bearers for their family and friends at funerals. Today, the story of Bass Street is buried under decades of redevelopment, from depression-era building programs, to urban renewal projects, to the construction of the interstate. Only street names, impressions in the ground and artifact trees serve as a reminder of what once was.

In 1928, after failed attempts to preserve the Fort Negley site as a national battlefield, the Nashville Parks Board purchased St. Cloud Hill from the heirs of John Overton with the intent to rebuild the fort and create a park for public use and recreation. In 1935, the Board used WPA and city funding, a total of $84,000, for the project. Eight hundred men, displaced by the economic crisis of the Great Depression, went to work on Fort Negley. The renovated park opened to the public in 1937.

By 1941, the landscape around the fort site was transformed into a multi-use public recreation area with open greenspaces, ball fields, and hundreds of feet of limestone walls.  At the fort, the replica wooden stockade built atop the stonework began to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, and the site was closed to the public in 1945.  The heavily used baseball fields remained in use until 1977, when they were demolished and supplanted by a professional baseball park for the local AA team, the Nashville Sounds. A new facility was built across town in 2015 and the stadium in Fort Negley Park was abandoned. Today, the park is managed by the Nashville Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation, and the hill serves as a significant source of identity, cultural history, and link to the past for African Americans. Each year, Juneteenth (a federal holiday recognizing the emancipation and freeing of slaves in the United States celebrated annually on June 19th) gatherings take place here.

From its beginnings as a vast sea, St. Cloud Hill has witnessed the story of change, displacement, and persistence.  A cultural story unfolds as native land turned private land and welcomed impressed laborers during the Civil War and later WPA projects during the Great Depression and urban renewal city planning efforts in the mid-20th century. Understanding who came before us makes us better stewards of the past and informs our decisions in protecting that past for future generations. It’s imperative to remember there were people here before, there are people here now, and there will be people here in the future – all with stories to be retold and revered.

All rocks, artifacts, plants, and animals at Fort Negley Park and the Adventure Science Center property are protected by law and must not be disturbed or removed. (Metro Ordinance BL 2011-834)

 

©2021 Adventure Science Center
English