The Powder Magazine Explosion (1847)

by Allen Forkum.

During October 1847 Nashvillians were alarmed by newspaper reports of numerous fires in the city, some caused by accident, some by “incendiaries” (i.e., arsonists). But on the evening of October 12, 1847, something much worse happened when a strong thunderstorm passed over the city.

A newspaper editor wrote of hearing a thunderclap, then a “terrific report—a lifting up sensation, as if something had exploded in the interior of the earth, with the effects of an earthquake.” He was in an office on the Public Square about one-half mile from the source of the explosion: a brick building storing gunpowder just west of Capitol Hill. The “powder magazine,” which reportedly contained over 500 kegs of gunpowder, had been struck by lightning. The building was completely blown from the site, sending brick missiles throughout the city.

The shock wave and debris broke almost every pane of glass in the city, some two miles away. More than fifty nearby houses were destroyed or rendered unfit for occupation, particularly on the streets Gay, Spruce (today’s Rosa L. Park Avenue) and High (today’s 6th Avenue North). Three people were killed instantly and at least one other person died later; many more were wounded. One newspaper account described a 100-pound rock going through the roof and into the cellar of the Nashville Inn on the Public Square.

Within a week of the explosion, city officials took measures to relocate another powder magazine away from the city, and the owners stationed a guard by it “day and night” until it could be moved. An attempt was made in the Tennessee House of Representatives to pass a resolution giving the city $1,000 from the State Treasury “for distribution among the sufferers.” The resolution did not make it to the Senate.

Lawsuits for damages were filed against the owners of the powder manufacturing company, Sycamore Powder Mill. One case went all the way to the Tennessee State Supreme Court, which found that “powder houses” placed in populated areas constitute a “nuisance.” During the Civil War, the memory of the 1847 explosion prompted the Nashville Dispatch to call for the removal of powder and ammunition stored downtown, a recommendation with which Federal authorities complied.


Nashville Whig, October 7, 1847, “DISTRESSING AFFAIR,” regarding an explosion at a house on Market Street where fireworks were being manufactured.

Nashville Whig, October 9, 1847, “FIRES,” regarding “several fires during the present week.”

Nashville Whig, October 12, 1847, “MORE FIRES.”

Nashville Daily Union, October 13, 1847, “TERRIBLE CATASTROPHE.”

Republican Banner, October 13, 1847, “Explosion of a Powder Magazine by Lightning,” which also includes a reprint of a detailed article from the Orthopolitan titled “DREADFUL ACCIDENT” containing a house-to-house description of damage.


Nashville Daily Union, October 14, 1847, “FURTHER PARTICULARS OF THE DISTRESSING CALAMITY,” regarding the 100-pound rock and other stories.

Republican Banner, October 18, 1847, “The Powder Magazine Below the City.”

Republican Banner, November 19, 1847, “Corporation of Nashville.” Attributes three deaths to the “Explosion of a Powder Magazine.”

Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee, at the Twenty-Seventh General Assembly, Held at Nashville, 1847-8. Pages 79 and 80, Resolution No. 26.

Republican Banner, May 22, 1851, “Suit for Damages.”

Reports of the Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Tennessee, During the Years 1851–2, Volume 1 (1853), pages 213–217, Cheatham et als. vs. Shearon, Trustee, &c.

Nashville Dispatch, June 4, 1863, “Whether justly entertained or not, there is no little uneasiness among the citizens of Nashville in regard to the large quantity of powder and ammunition of various kinds believed to be stored in the city for the military authorities.”

Nashville Dispatch, December 18, 1863, “Removal of Powder.”

Perilous Times in Nashville

Musings by Mike Slate.

Just as in our national history, the question of personal safety has arisen many times in Nashville. For at least fifteen years after our 1780 founding, not a man, woman, or child was safe. Indians devised surprise attacks again and again on the encroaching settlers, and many lives were lost – some, like Jonathan Jennings, through horrific means.

Never has there been a Nashville panic like that of February 1862. After Fort Donelson fell on February 16, it became clear that Union troops would occupy Nashville. Many Nashville secessionists quickly scattered to the winds, while others, determined to remain, hunkered down in fearful anticipation of the arrival of the invading army.

Soon afterwards, as if the Civil War had not brought enough agony, one of several vicious cholera epidemics claimed as many as 800 Nashville lives in the summer of 1866. Seven years later, in 1873, nearly 750 Nashvillians perished in another outbreak of the terrible disease.

By the end of the day on March 22, 1916, about thirty-two square blocks of East Nashville had become a wasteland. A particularly voracious fire, driven by high winds, had devoured nearly 700 buildings and homes. Not many years later, on March 14, 1933, another unwelcome guest—a savage tornado—roared through East Nashville threatening again the very foundations of the community.

Remains of a fire engine from Company #4 near Russell and Fatherland Streets after the 1916 Edgefield fire (TSLA photo)

During the 1960s Nashville was a highly visible stage for the Civil Rights Movement. At times it looked as though our city might self-destruct out of racial tension. Neither whites nor blacks felt safe as the pressures created by mandated integration resulted in legal battles, demonstrations, sit-ins, and riots.

Nashville was left largely to its own devices during the destructive flood of May 2010, when it received more than 13 inches of rain in two days. The fast-rising water displaced 10,000 residents, produced $2.3 billion in property damage, and caused a number of deaths. Receiving little help from outside, neighbors helped neighbors, and volunteers turned out by the hundreds to help with clean-up efforts.

Nashville flood 2010

Late on March 2, 2020, a category-EF3 tornado roared through Nashville and into Mt. Juliet along nearly the same path as the 1933 storm, causing five deaths, over 200 serious injuries, and $1.5 billion in property damage, including a disproportionate number of churches and school buildings. The Covid-19 pandemic had just begun to affect the health of the community as tornado clean-up got underway, and the remainder of the year was consumed by efforts to sustain schools, businesses, and healthcare facilities during a time of unprecedented illness and hardship. And then, just as new vaccines brought hope, the Christmas morning bomb blast on 2nd Avenue downtown shattered our peace once again.

Second Avenue, Nashville, after Christmas bombing 2020

Yet somehow, through these and other perilous times, Nashville has survived, and even thrived. We have always been an industrious lot, constructing landmark public buildings, universities, churches, libraries, businesses, and homes. More important, we have strengthened our collective character and have raised our children to become leaders in business, education, law, politics, medicine, and music. We have produced artists and poets, authors and publishers, factory technicians and practical nurses. We, along with our nation, have become a diversified and enriched society that must continue to mature. We have proudly earned our motto, “Nashville Strong!”

The Suspension Bridge (1850)

by Allen Forkum.

Since settlers first arrived in 1779, there has been a need for residents to cross the Cumberland River at Nashville. Boats and ferries were the primary means until Nashville’s first bridge was completed in 1823. But within years, this covered toll bridge became an impediment to steamboat traffic, and petitions were made to the state for a second bridge.

View of Cumberland River, looking north, with view of the Woodland Street suspension bridge and railroad bridge in the distance. (from TSLA photograph collection)

In December 1845 the state legislature authorized the Broad Street Bridge Company to “erect a suspension bridge, of sufficient height as to not obstruct the navigation of the Cumberland” located “at or near the junction of Broad and Water streets” (today’s Riverfront Park). The public act dictated toll rates, e.g., “Footmen free; Man and horse, 5 cents. . . ; For any four wheel two horse pleasure carriage, 25 cents,” etc. Charter company members included Felix K. Zollicoffer (1812–1862) and John Shelby (1785–1859), who owned land across the river in the community that would become known as Edgefield. After the location of the bridge was fixed (changed from Broad Street to the Public Square), contractor M.D. Field hired Nashville architect Adolphus Heiman (1809–1862) to design the bridge. Heiman’s work was lauded, but he would resign from the project over disagreements with Field about the bridge’s construction. By August 1850 the “wire suspension bridge” had “hundreds of wagons and other vehicles pass over daily.” The toll bridge officially opened on September 23. It was 663 three feet in length and 110 feet above the low-water mark. One historian said the “magnificent structure . . . gave an impetus to the growth of Edgefield, making desirable a large body of land which was not so well reached by the old bridge.” The old covered bridge was removed in 1851.

On June 16, 1855, disaster struck at the suspension bridge when a portion of the roadway collapsed, sending a carriage and several people plummeting into the river; two people were killed. Newspaper accounts attributed the accident to brittle wood being used to replace the old wood flooring.

On February 18, 1862, despite “urgent appeals” by citizens, retreating Confederate military authorities ordered that the suspension cables be cut to impede advancing Federal troops. John B. Lindsley (1822–1897) witnessed the destruction of the bridge, writing in his diary that he had never seen a “more strikingly beautiful scene . . .the Wire Bridge was a line or flooring of fire.” The railroad bridge was also burned. Federal military authorities formally took possession of the city on February 25.

The suspension bridge was rebuilt in 1866 and reopened again as a toll bridge. But by the 1870s some citizens, particularly those on the Edgefield side of the river, were expressing the desire for a free bridge. In 1882 the city and county jointly purchased the suspension bridge from the Broad Street Bridge Company and reopened it for public use without a toll. Just two years later, however, the bridge was deemed unsafe by engineers and closed. It was agreed that a new bridge would be erected, but to the chagrin of many Edgefield residents, a pay ferry and a toll pontoon bridge had to be used in the meantime. The new bridge, featuring new piers and iron truss spans with two roadways, opened in 1886. Today the Woodland Street Bridge, opened in 1966, crosses the Cumberland River at the same location as the original 1850 suspension bridge.

Sources, abridged:

Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements (2012), by Paul Clements, page 131.

Nashville Whig, June 11, 1823, “Nashville Bridge.”

Tennessee Legislative Petitions, Record Group 62 card catalog, bridge petitions.

Tennessee Legislative Petitions, 194-1831-1A and 194-1831-1B, petition by Nashville Bridge Company against a second bridge.

Public Acts of Tennessee, 1845-46, Chapter XXVI, pages 71 to 74, authorization of the suspension bridge.

A. Heiman to John Meigs, Dec. 28, 1857, Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-100) Box 7, H-62, copy of resignation letter.

A. Heiman to John Meigs, Dec. 28, 1857, Tennessee Historical Society Miscellaneous Files (T-100) Box 7, H-63, copy of report to Directors of the Suspension Bridge

Nashville Union, April 18, 1849, “Suspension Bridge.”

Daily (Centre-State) American, August 17, 1850, “The Wire Suspension Bridge…”

History of Davidson County, Tennessee (1880) by W.W. Clayton, pages 308–309, 348.

Daily American, November 13, 1851, “The work of removing the Bridge…”

Nashville Union & American, June 17, 1855, “Terrible Casualty.”

Republican Banner, June 17, 1855, “Unfortunate Accident at the Suspension Bridge.”

Republican Banner, June 19, 1855, “The Bridge Casualty.”

“The Great Panic by an Eye-witness” (1862) booklet

Lindsley, John B., diary, February 20, 1862, “By this time (3 to 4 A.M.) the suspension and railroad bridges were all in flames.”

Republican Banner, April 21, 1866, “The Suspension Bridge over the Cumberland river, connecting Nashville with the pleasant suburb of Edgefield, will be completed in a few weeks.”

Republican Banner, September 23, 1870, “To The Editor” from “Stockholders” regarding “free passage”

Daily American, January 12, 1882, “The Suspension Bridge—The Resolution Proposing Its Condemnation for a Free Bridge.”

Daily American, September 11, 1884, “The New Bridge.”

Daily American, April 18, 1886, “Crossing The River—History of Bridges Across the Cumberland at Nashville.”

Nashville Banner, October 22, 1966, “Man Survives 90-Foot Fall Off Bridge.”

“Nashville Bridges Across the Cumberland River,” by Debie Cox, online at

The Old Nashville Market House, 1828-1937

by Dave Price.

Our original market house was completed during 1802 and can be seen in the well-known map of 1804 Nashville, which appeared in Clayton’s History of Davidson County, Tennessee. Its replacement was begun in April 1828 and was occupied in January 1829. This structure, shown on the 1831 J.P. Ayres (Doolittle & Munson) map, consisted of a long market shed running north and south with a two-story building at each end.

Photograph of the Public Square courtesy of Debie Oeser Cox,

The Ayres map was surrounded by a number of drawings of local buildings and scenes, so we know what the southerly building looked like. It was the “Tennessee Lottery Office,” the image of which has been reproduced, although I am unable to cite such a copy in one of the standard histories. Interesting features of this Lottery Office are a recessed arch shape in the brick on the west side of the building and round windows in the upper corners of the south end.

A “salt print” (dated ca. 1856) of the west side of Nashville’s Public Square attracted a good deal of attention a few years ago when the State Museum purchased the rare item at a Sotheby’s auction. (We old Nashville buffs had been aware of a copy negative in the state archives for years.) The print reveals the same features mentioned above in the northwest corner of the northerly building, indicating that the matching original end buildings of the market house were still in place with some modifications: single story wings added to the south (and we presume north) sides of the end buildings and a cupola added to the roof of the south building (and probably to the north one as well, although it cannot be seen in the print).

A familiar photo taken from Capitol Hill a few years later shows that the end buildings had either been extensively remodeled or replaced with much larger three-story structures having two square towers on each end building. This image is reproduced in Adams-Christian, p. 53. Since the old Methodist Publishing House is shown, the picture must date from before 1873. The southerly building at some point became the City Hall, and Creighton tells us that the Supreme Court met in one of the buildings for a time and that 100 stalls existed in the market section or long connecting shed.

A good view of the southerly building can be seen in James Patrick’s Architecture in Tennessee, 1768-1897, where it is suggested that Adolphus Heiman may have remodeled the buildings “about 1855.” Despite the estimated dates, the “ca. 1856” image was obviously made prior to the “about 1855” remodeling. Incidentally, this building is shown in Max Hochstetler’s great Opryland Hotel mural, which can be seen on the cover of the Summer 1990 Tennessee Historical Quarterly. A view that shows both end buildings and the connecting market building is seen in Jack Norman’s The Nashville I Knew, p. 125.

Although not mentioned by any of the histories that I consulted, the southerly building was consumed by the Burns Block fire on the square during the night of January 2, 1897. The fire company stopped at the site of an old cistern between the Court House and the Market House but found it had been Macadamed over. During the delay in finding a new water source, the old dilapidated City Hall was engulfed in flame and the crowd shouted, “Let it burn!” which is exactly what happened.

This fire was responsible for the replacement of the City Hall with the large 1898 building that older readers will recall (Norman has a good view of this on p. 122 and an unusual architectural drawing is found in the photo section of Fedora Small Frank’s Beginnings on Market Street).

In the meantime the northerly building still had at least one of its towers in an 1892 photo but had lost both towers by 1910. This building contained the office of the Market Master and such city offices as those of the Meat and Dairy Inspectors and was generally called simply, “the north end.” The new City Hall remained much the same, although much of its one large tower was gone by the time of its 1936-37 demolition. The March 14, 1933, East Nashville Tornado caused some damage on the square and this may have been when the tower was shortened.

Aerial photographs taken during the construction of the present (Woolwine) Court House show that, while the market house section and the northerly building were razed along with the Strickland Court House (since they lay in the path of construction), the City Hall was actually a few feet south of the new building and was the last part to fall. It is also obvious from these photos that the market section had been widened considerably over the years; it contained 114 or more stalls by the time of its demise.

The later (1937-1955) Market House stands today behind the present court house and is still in use as the Ben West Building, or more commonly the “Traffic Court Building.” The once-familiar wagons are gone, and the farm trucks that once surrounded the Court House moved north of the Capitol to the new Farmer’s Market in 1955. That market has now been replaced and will no doubt be recalled by a later generation as “the old Farmers’ Market.” (1998)

1814 Nashville Fire

Primary Source Document, transcribed by Larry Michael Ellis.


Under the dispensations of divine providence, we have again to record the destructive effects of of [sic] this ungovernable element. – On Friday night last, about 10 o’clock, the citizens of this town were alarmed with the cry of fire! It proceeded from the hay-loft of Wm. W. Cooke, Esq. near Mr. Woods [sic] warehouse; it had gained such an ascendency [sic] & the buildings were so combustible, that the utmost exertions of the citizens could not save the large adjoining warehouse, filled with consignments to Joseph Woods esq commission merchant, the bindery, dwelling house and bookstore of Mr. Duncan Robertson, the tavern house of Robert Renfroe, the frame house of John Anderson esq, the house occupied by Mr. Ernest Benoit, baker, the shop of Messrs. E. and G. Hewlett saddlers above; the dwelling house of Wm. W. Cooke esq, the dwelling house occupied by Mr. S. V. Stout, the warehouse of Messrs. Read and Washington, army contractors, and their office, the shop & dwelling house of Mr. D. C. Snow, tin plate worker, below; the dwelling house of Joseph T. Elliston, and his silversmith shop, the dwelling house of the editor of the Clarion, & his printing office, the house lately occupied by Wm. M. Wallace, as a shoemaker’s shop and the house occupied be Joseph Sumner, the property of Mr. John Young, the office of the Nashville Whig, and the hatter’s shop of Mr. Joshua Pilcher, and the brick store-house occupied by W. Tannehill, esq. above on the east of Market street, & all the frame buildings on the same side opposite to bank alley, making in the whole the most destructive fire ever experienced in the western country. No language can paint the distress of many of the sufferers, who were left without bread, meat, dishes or plates, or a covering except the heavens. In the whole range of the fire we are however gratified that no lives were lost, and we hope that in a few years a majority of the sufferers will be able to replace the property they have thus lost.

In some few cases we are, however, sorry to learn the individuals are ruined. It is impossible at present to form any estimate of the immense loss sustained – nearly one half the buildings that were in the town are in ashes; much furniture and other valuable property was lost in the flames. Among the sufferers, the Editor of this Paper finds it necessary to repeat that he was one – his Printing Office contained many printed books and pamphlets, the most of which were lost, and he is sorry to state, in that situation is the Journal of the proceedings of the last Gener- Assembly [sic], which was nearly entirely lost. Of the Journal of the house of Representatives, it is believed a copy can be made out; but of the Senate, there is not the least hope of ever recovering one, for the printing and manuscript shared the same fate. Of the heavy editions of law books, &c. &c in the house, it is believed scarcely a copy remains; and of the printing apparatus, a considerable part was lost; but one press and nearly all the type was saved. For the satisfaction of the members of the last General Assembly, he is thus particular, that the loss of the public Journals may be rightly understood.

The fire was communicated, we have little doubt, by some incendiary – who is not yet ascertained.

Courthouses of Davidson County, Tennessee

by Debie Oeser Cox, author of Nashville History blog.

How many court buildings have stood on the public square in Nashville? Published sources offer conflicting information, some stating the number as four and others as five. Research in the minute books of the Davidson County Court has provided the following details.

First Courthouse

The building of the first Courthouse was authorized by the Davidson County Court at the October Term 1783: “The Court then proceeded to fix on a place for Building of a Courthouse & Prison, and agree that in the present situation of the Settlement that it be at Nashborough and Built at the Expense of the Publick. And that the size of the Courthouse be eighteen feet square in the body with a Leanto Shade of twelve feet on the one side of the length of the House. And that the house be furnished with the necessary benches, Barr, Table &c fit for the Reception of the Court.” In April of 1792 the Court “ordered that David Hay repair the Court house by Making Two Doors well fixed and Hung with three window shutters well hung; and the house Well chinked.”

Second Courthouse

Davidson County Court minutes of October 15, 1802, page 367, report as follows: “Court adjourns for five minutes, to meet in the new Courthouse. Court met according to adjournment in the New Courthouse where was present . . ..” A further search of Court minutes yields few clues as to the size or type of building. In 1804 the Court ordered the purchasing of a bell for the Courthouse and in 1806 the painting of the roof and steps. In 1822 the Court “ordered that opening at the head of the Stairs be closed, leaving a door there to which he shall have a shutter made and to have the two stoves placed one on each side of the house behind the bar with pipes extending so as to render the house comfortable for the different courts that are to set here during the winter . . ..” In October 1825 a commission was appointed to determine whether the Courthouse could be repaired to make it comfortable enough for the Court to meet in winter or whether it would be necessary to rent a building for the winter.

Third Courthouse

In January 1826 the acting Justices of the Court met and voted to raise, with a special tax, $15,000 over a period of three years for the purpose of building a courthouse for the county. The Courthouse was finished in late 1829 or early 1830. It is described in Eastin Morris’s Tennessee Gazetteer, 1834: “The Court House which stands on the public square, is a spacious and commodious edifice. It presents a handsome front of 105 feet and is sixty-three feet deep. The basement story contains a number of rooms, designed for public offices, and on the second and third floors there are two rooms forty by sixty feet each, two others thirty-six by forty, and two others twenty-three by forty. The basement story is eleven feet high, and the two principal ones are eighteen feet each, and the height of the whole building to the top of the dome is ninety feet. The foundation and part of the lower story is of fine hewn stone, and the remainder of brick, and the two fronts are ornamented with four white pilasters each, The dome contains a good town clock, and is supported by eight columns of Ionic order.” This Courthouse burned in 1856. The County Court minutes state: “Monday Morning April 14, 1856 Court met pursuant to adjournment at the State House in Nashville (the Court House having been burned down) . . ..”

Fourth Courthouse

Fourth Courthouse, 1906 (postcard from NHN collection)

On May 10, 1856, the Court met in the Market House: “The County Court will build a Courthouse on or near the center of the Public Square in Nashville . . ..” According to County Court minutes, architect W. Francis Strickland, son of William Strickland, designer of the Tennessee State Capitol, was “employed at a salary of one thousand dollars per annum as architect of the court house.” The design chosen by Strickland was very similar to that of the Capitol building designed by his father. The building was to have a basement and three stories above ground, and was to be 118 feet by 72 feet in size. The Court first met in the new building in January 1859. The building was remodeled in 1910 with an additional story added. In 1935 this building, along with the City Hall and Market House, was demolished to make room for a new courthouse.

Fifth Courthouse

The present Courthouse was completed in 1937. The architects, Emmons H. Woolwine of Nashville and Frederic C. Hirons of New York, won an architectural competition in 1935 with their Art Deco design. The cornerstone of the building was laid August 10, 1936, and the building was dedicated on December 8, 1937. The general contractor was the J. A. Jones Construction Company. The building is eight stories high and measures 260 feet by 96 feet. The years have taken a toll – the building is in need of repair and the need for space is critical. Mayor Bill Purcell hopes to relieve the crowded conditions in the Courthouse by the construction of a General Sessions-Criminal Court complex, near the Ben West building. Plans are under way for a major renovation of the Courthouse to begin in the spring of 2003.   (Article was published in 2002)