by Ilene Jones Cornwell.
April 24, 2003, marks the 223rd anniversary of the historical founding of Nashville. On that well-known date in 1780, John Donelson’s flotilla of about 30 flatboats and several pirogues completed the 1006-mile voyage via four rivers to the French Lick’s almost-completed log central station. Here the travelers joined James Robertson’s overland settlement party that had traveled into the western North Carolina frontier to cross the frozen Cumberland River on Christmas Day 1779 to establish an outpost of civilization. This two-prong settlement of Nashville was described by Theodore Roosevelt in Winning of the West as “being equal in importance to the settlement of Jamestown or the landing at Plymouth Rock.”
Not as well known is that this year also marks the 100th anniversary of the October 11, 1903, dedication of the Robertson Monument in Centennial Park. The monument’s towering 50-foot granite shaft is actually seven years older than its year of dedication, and the story of the monument’s creation in Nashville’s first public park is nearly as interesting as the Robertson pioneers it memorializes.
The monument’s existence is due to the energy, dedication, and vision of Nashville’s Major Eugene C. Lewis (1845-1917), owner of the Nashville American newspaper and a consulting civil engineer. It was Lewis’ friend, local architect William C. Smith, who suggested in a late-1893 speech to Nashville’s Commercial Club that “a spectacular Tennessee Centennial be held to alleviate financial distress and to divert the attention of the people” from the long and severe depression that had engulfed America after the Panic of ’93. Before the depression, according to W. F. Creighton in Building of Nashville, local attorney Douglas Anderson had suggested in local newspapers that a celebration be held in Nashville to celebrate the centenary of Tennessee’s 1796 statehood. Although Anderson’s earlier suggestion had evoked favorable public response, no action was taken until Smith renewed interest in the project. The Nashville Tennessee Centennial Exposition Company was formed and by the summer of 1895 was beginning to acquire financial support for the event. John W. Thomas, president of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, served as president of the Centennial Company and chairman of the executive committee of the Exposition, and Major E. C. Lewis was named director general. The site selected for the Exposition was the West Side Race Track and Park, located on the old fairgrounds surrounding the historic Cockrill Springs area at the end of Church Street and the terminus of the West End Avenue streetcar line. The first Tennessee State Fair had been staged on the site in 1869, with subsequent fairs held in 1873, 1879, and 1884.
The Centennial Exposition, held May 1 through October 30, 1897, was “essentially a fair on a grand scale,” wrote A. W. Crouch and H. D. Claybrook in Our Ancestors Were Engineers. Attractions included 12 large buildings featuring exhibits on the commercial, industrial, agricultural, and educational interests of the state; a “midway” including Egyptian, Cuban, and Chinese villages; a “Giant See-saw” designed by local engineer and steel fabricator Arthur J. Dyer; Venetian gondoliers on newly created Lake Watauga; a Venetian Rialto bridge designed by local architect C. A. Asmus; parades and “sham battles” by the Tennessee Militia; fireworks and other entertainment; and a 250-foot flag staff designed by E. C. Lewis. Major Lewis also had conceived the idea to create a replica of the 5th-century B. C. Athenian Parthenon to house the art exhibit, then commissioned local architect W. C. Smith to make the needed drawings. (The Parthenon, built during 1895-1897, and the city park board’s 1920 decision to have it rebuilt as a permanent structure is a story unto itself.)
Among the exhibits featured at the Exposition’s Mineral and Forestry Building was a towering, 50-foot granite shaft. The impressive monolith is attributed to the “Barry Vermont Granite Quarries” by Creighton in Building of Nashville, but Leland Johnson wrote in The Parks of Nashville that the “granite shaft was quarried at Stone Mountain, Georgia, by Venerable Brothers of Atlanta and shipped to Nashville for display during the 1897 Centennial Exposition. Oral tradition says a portion of the shaft broke off during transit to Nashville.” The shaft’s original flat-stone base remains today on the west bank of Lake Watauga and bears a metal plate commemorating the Centennial Exposition.
After the Exposition closed, all buildings except the Parthenon were torn down and removed. The success of the Exposition, as well as the progressive movement of the late 19th Century to establish public parks, planted the seed for Nashville’s park system. In 1901 Mayor James Head appointed five men, one of whom was Major E. C. Lewis, to the new Board of Park Commissioners. Negotiations were begun by the city in early 1902 with the owners of the 72-acre Centennial Park to purchase the land for a permanent city park. After months of complicated offers and counter-offers, described in The Parks of Nashville, Nashville Railway and Light Company purchased Centennial Park and its title was presented to the city park board on December 22, 1902.
On January 13, 1903, Major Lewis addressed the Tennessee Historical Society on the subject of James Robertson. He began his speech by informing the assembled members of “a fortunate circumstance that transpired only a few days ago. . . .For the first time in all its history, Nashville has park ground worthy of the Capital of Tennessee. The title to the Centennial Grounds, upon which the city has already contributed a large sum of money toward the adornment thereof, is now in the city of Nashville. The Park Commission. . .has so far determined upon but one measure, and that, the erection in Centennial Park of a monument [for] James Robertson, the founder of Nashville.” He concluded his lengthy profile of Robertson by asking, “What have we of Nashville done to honor this man’s memory? Has even the memory of all the good Robertson did been interred with his bones?. . .Are we a grateful people?”
Major Lewis had made prescient provisions to answer his own questions. When negotiations had begun to purchase the Centennial land, he purchased the 50-foot granite shaft for $200, then his fellow-commissioner Samuel A. Champion “resolved that it be erected in the park as a monument to the memory of James Robertson.” Lewis also purchased the flat-stone base for $10 in 1903 to remain beside Lake Watauga as a memorial to the Centennial Exposition. A new granite base was needed to support the heavy shaft after its relocation, but no record has yet been found of the base’s creator or its procurement. Wherever the massive base originated, Johnson described the monument’s creation in The Parks of Nashville: “With a tripod made of three large oak logs and block and tackle, Major Lewis raised the shaft into position and then constructed the foundation beneath it.” The granite shaft and its base weigh a total of 52.5 tons. Text is inscribed on a plaque on each side of the monument:
North Side Text: “James Robertson/Born in Brunswick County, Virginia, June 28, 1742. Moved to North Carolina in 1750. Came to Tennessee in 1769. Settled Nashville in 1780. Died in Tennessee Sept. 1, 1814. Reinterred in the City Cemetery at Nashville, 1825, under authority of the Tennessee Legislature.”
East Side Text: “Charlotte Reeves/Wife of James Robertson/Born in North Carolina, Jan. 2, 1751. Married to James Robertson, 1768. Died in Nashville, Jun. 11, 1843. Buried in the City Cemetery. Mother of the first male child born at Nashville. She participated in the deeds and dangers of her illustrious husband: won honors of her own and along his path of destiny cast a leading light of loyalty, intelligence, and devotion.”
South Side Text: “A worthy citizen of both Virginia and North Carolina. Pioneer, patriot, and patriarch in Tennessee. Diplomat, Indian fighter, maker of memorable history. Director of the movement of the settlers requiring that hazardous and heroic journey so successfully achieved from Watauga to the Cumberland. Founder of Nashville. Brigadier-General of the United States Army. Agent of the Government to the Chickasaw Nation. He was earnest, taciturn, self-contained, and had that quiet consciousness of power usually seen in born leaders of men. ‘He had winning ways and made no fuss.’ (Oconnostota) He had what was of value beyond price–a love of virtue, an intrepid soul, an emulous desire for honest fame. He possessed to an eminent degree the confidence, esteem, and veneration of all his contemporaries. His worth and services in peace and war are gratefully remembered. Amiable in private life, wise in council, vigilant in camp, courageous in battle, strong in adversity, generous in victory, revered in death.”
West Side Text: “James Robertson/Founder of Nashville/’We are the advance guard of civilization. Our way is across the Continent.'” Robertson—1779
The monument to James and Charlotte Reeves Robertson was presented to the city of Nashville on October 11, 1903, by Major E. C. Lewis on behalf of the Park Commission. About 100 Robertson descendants from all over the United States and one foreign country attended the ceremony in Centennial Park, according to Sarah F. Kelley in Children of Nashville. Three-year-old Dickson Wharton Robertson, descended through Dr. Peyton Robertson, was dressed in Scottish-plaid kilts and pulled the string to unveil the towering monument honoring his great-great-grandfather. Among those offering memorial tributes to Nashville’s founder were Governor James B. Frazier and Mayor James Head.
“History often repeats itself,” wrote Kelley. “On June 28, 1972, the descendants of James Robertson gathered once again in Nashville to celebrate Tennessee’s ‘James Robertson Day’ proclaimed by Governor Winfield Dunn.” Among the descendants gathered around the Robertson Monument in Centennial Park was the same Dickson Wharton Robertson who had participated in the monument’s unveiling 69 years earlier.
As the Robertson Monument approaches its centenary, the 107-year-old shaft has weathered well, as have the 100-year-old base and four bronze plaques. Attesting to the passage of a century is that the massive base appears to have sunk several feet into the earth since 1903. Without measured drawings to provide dimensions of the original base, however, a definitive conclusion cannot be made. Thus we celebrate the founding of Nashville with the hope that Centennial Park’s terra firma will continue to support the city’s monument to its founder, so that future Nashvillians may enjoy a bicentennial celebration of the Robertson Monument.
Winning of the West, Volume II: From the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, 1777-1783, by Theodore Roosevelt (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889).
Tennessee Old and New, Sesquicentennial Edition, 1796-1946, Volumes I and II (Nashville: Tennessee Historical Commission and Tennessee Historical Society, 1946).
Seedtime on the Cumberland, by Harriette Simpson Arnow (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1960).
Building of Nashville, by Wilbur Foster Creighton; revised and enlarged by Wilbur F. Creighton, Jr., and Leland R. Johnson (Nashville: Wilbur F. Creighton, Jr., and Elizabeth Creighton Schumann, 1969).
Children of Nashville: Lineages of James Robertson, by Sarah Foster Kelley (Nashville: Blue and Gray Press, 1973).
Our Ancestors Were Engineers, by Arthur Weir Crouch and Harry Dixon Claybrook (Nashville: Nashville Section of American Society of Civil Engineers, 1976).
The Parks of Nashville: A History of the Board of Parks and Recreation, by Leland R. Johnson (Nashville: Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County Board of Parks and Recreation, 1986).
Andrew Jackson Slept Here: A Guide to Historical Markers in Nashville and Davidson County (Nashville: Metropolitan Historical Commission of Nashville and Davidson County, 1993).