From rivers to railroad, Clarksville, Tennessee, is steeped in history

Situated near the confluence of the Cumberland and Red rivers, Clarksville, Tennessee, is steeped in history Photo: Todd DeFeo

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 27, 2012 – Clarksville is an often overlooked destination when it comes to a Tennessee vacation, but Tennessee’s fifth-largest city is an easy daytrip from Nashville.

The city, located on the Tennessee-Kentucky line, is perhaps best known as the home of Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 101st Airborne Division. It is also home to Austin Peay State University, named in honor of a native son and former state governor.

Steeped in history, the downtown is quaint, but quiet, comprised of mostly lawyers’ offices interspersed by eateries and merchants. One downtown landmark – the Roxy Regional Theater on Franklin Street – served as the backdrop for Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” video filmed in 1998.

The following year, a tornado destroyed much of downtown. Since largely rebuilt, a series of interpretive panels near the historic courthouse detail Mother Nature’s impact on Clarksville throughout the years.

Situated near the confluence of the Cumberland and Red rivers, the city was once a major tobacco port. The city’s reliance on the river to help drive its economy is apparent on the Poston Building, one of the oldest buildings in town.

In the 1870s, an advertisement was painted on the building’s side and is still visible. Much like a billboard situated along the side of the interstate, the advertisement was visible to passing river traffic.

Because of the volume of traffic that passed through the city, the federal government in 1898 built a customs house and a post office at the corner of Second and Commerce streets to process the increasing volumes of mail to and from the city.

Designer William Martin Aiken, the supervising architect of the Treasury, incorporated a number of design styles into the building, which in 1984 was transformed into the Customs House Museum and Cultural Center. Touted as the “state’s second-largest general interest museum,” the museum features exhibits dedicated to telling Clarksville’s history.

While rivers helped shape Clarksville’s early history, thanks to The Monkees and their 1966 single, “Last Train to Clarksville”, Clarksville is forever linked to railroads. Even though the song most likely isn’t about this Clarksville, the city has a deep railroad history.

The most impressive railroad relic is the swing bridge over the Cumberland River. With stone pillars dating to 1859, the 678-foot-long bridge is normally more than 50 feet above the river and can swing to allow river traffic to pass when the water level is high.

Other former railroad bridges that cut through the heart of town were abandoned in the 1980s and are being reused as a rails-to-trails path.

Other destinations include:

Dunbar Cave: By the 1930s and 1940s, Dunbar Cave was a popular destination – not so much because of its natural splendor, but because of the musical acts that performed at the cave entrance. The 8-mile-long Dunbar Cave was formed millions of years ago and has always attracted people. Over the years, archeologists have found Paleo-Indian artifacts buried near the cave entrance, and in 2005, Indian glyphs were discovered on the cave walls.

RiverWalk: To take advantage of its best asset, the city built a mile-long walkway along the Cumberland River. The walkway provides visitors with nice views of the traffic traversing the river and offers a nice respite from the city’s usually congested streets.

The river is also the backdrop for many events, including an annual music festival and also the home to the Christmas on the Cumberland celebration.

Fort Defiance: Confederate troops in November 1861 built defenses overlooking the Cumberland and Red rivers. Following a major battle at Fort Donelson in nearby Dover, Confederate troops abandoned Clarksville; Union troops later found the abandoned fort and reworked it for their needs.

In 2011, the city opened a $2 million interpretive center to tell the story of Fort Defiance. In addition to a movie in the center, visitors can see remarkable well preserved earthworks at the site and take in a newly installed Confederate money exhibit.

Beachaven Winery: Judge William O. Beach paved the way for wine production in Tennessee when he opened this winery in 1987. While Beachaven produces a number of sweeter, fruit-flavored wines, it also produces a strong assortment of drier wines. For starters, consider sampling the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

For anyone unsure about the wine, the tastings are free, as is a brief tour of the grounds. The winery’s highly popular Jazz on the Lawn series in summer months features free music at the winery.

Eat here
Clarksville is home to every fast food chain imaginable. But, one restaurant is a must: the Blackhorse Pub & Brewery on Franklin Street. In addition to standard bar food and artisan pizzas, the restaurant brews its own beer – a surprisingly delightful offering. For starters, try the Vanilla Cream Ale or Barnstormer Red Ale.

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Todd DeFeo

Todd DeFeo jouned The Washington Times Communities in May 2012. He covers travel and Georgia. A marketing professional who never gave up his award-winning journalistic ways, DeFeo revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He also serves as editor of The Travel Trolley.


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