Curious Nashville: How An Engineering Failure Led To A Riverfront Park | Nashville Public Radio

Curious Nashville: How An Engineering Failure Led To A Riverfront Park

Oct 12, 2017

Lock One Park may be one of Nashville’s smallest parks, but it combines easy access to the Cumberland River with a surprising skyline view — and early 1900s stone ruins that lend an air of mystery.

That’s all fodder, of course, for a question to Curious Nashville. It came from avid cyclist Nora Kern, the director of Walk Bike Nashville:

I’m really curious about what’s the story behind Lock One Park on the Cumberland River and why it still exists?

Kern says she was first shown the park while bicycling with friends.

“It’s kind of hidden and a good, adventurous spot,” she said. “It just seemed like a strange remnant.”

Answering Kern’s question called for a combination of documents and interviews, and a visit to the park.

‘Hauntingly Awesome’

Lock One Park isn’t far from Nashville Public Radio, just across the river from MetroCenter. And I’d been there before. But I’d never ventured beyond the large concrete slab that first greets visitors, so I had missed the multi-tiered geography of the park and most of the stone ruins. Plus, I didn’t get anywhere near the river.

All of that was a mistake. (In my defense, a review of the park by The Scene described Lock One as “the haunted house where your eccentric neighbor’s grandma lived,” and as a park “you should not go to … by yourself.”)

With nobody else there — a few neighbors on their porches nearby — Lock One Park does feel isolated. And the slim strip of grass allotted for parking isn’t welcoming.

But the remaining stone walls make it obvious why Kern was so curious.

The ruins of Lock One Park remain part of a Metro park.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN

One wall stretches for several hundred feet, and there are smaller stone steps, and numerous concrete slabs on site. An epic staircase, which is marked off every foot to measure the depth of the water, leads down to a concrete pier where the river flows within arm’s reach (browse the slideshow above).

River Boondoggle

This lock is one of few reminders of what is generally regarded as a failed attempt to control the Cumberland River. And here’s where we get to Kern’s history question.

The lock is located on what is known as Heaton’s Station, where a pioneering fort was constructed around 1780 — and which later became the subject of Nashville’s first historic landmark sign, posted in 1968.

The lock came around in the early 1900s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction on 21 locks and dams between Nashville and Smith’s Shoals, Ky., to try to improve travel for steamboats through the shallow, rocky waters.

Yet construction bids came in at “exorbitant” rates, according to an article in 1899, and there were numerous delays while the first 15 were built.

By the 1920s, river navigation had hardly been improved, according to a write-up by the Metro Historical Zoning Commission.

The locks began to be submerged or demolished — and replaced — in the 1930s and 40s.

Lock No. 1, as it was known then, came down with dynamite blasts in October 1954, according to historian George Zepp, longtime author of a history column in The Tennessean.

It was inevitable under the circumstances that the locks didn’t last, but size wasn’t the only factor. Steamboat cargo on the Cumberland dropped sharply starting in the 1920s with rising competition from trains and trucks.

A Modest Future

These days, Metro Parks leases and maintains the lock land, but there’s not been much in the way of improvements for decades.

That said, the parks department reports an uptick in community interest, and the recently revised Plan To Play strategy does include a brief mention of adding a small boat launch at Lock One Park in the future. A parks official said that area would be a candidate for canoes, kayaks and standup paddle boards.

Yet the park only serves a small radius, so anything more than a trail loop or playground would be unlikely — and there’s no funding allotted.

Meanwhile, development has increased all along the bank. That worries resident Iyen Frierson, who stopped by Lock One Park while I was visiting.

“Every day, I come down here and meditate and pray over this land,” Frierson said. “This is a healing place. I just feel it.”

The Cumberland River flows gently by Lock One Park in North Nashville.
Credit Tony Gonzalez / WPLN