The junction of the Red and Sulphur Fork rivers at Port Royal
Know what a ghost town is? A ghost town is a place where there used to be a community, but not any more. Port Royal State Historic Park is an example of a Tennessee ghost town. There used to be a community here, with houses, stores, and even a church. A lot of interesting things took place here during frontier times. But eventually people stopped coming to Port Royal and stopped living at Port Royal. Today, at the Port Royal State Historic Park, there are only signs of what once existed here.
Port Royal is at the eastern edge of Montgomery County, at the intersection of the Red River and Sulphur Fork Creek. Today, the most common watercraft that you'll see in this area are canoes. But there was a time when it wasn't uncommon to see flatboats or small steamboats along the Red River. In fact, this was considered the point where the Red River becomes navigable for such boats.
Port Royal was also the site of an important road which, like the Cumberland Gap in northeast Tennessee, started as a buffalo trail. Because the Red River is easy to cross here, this was an important link in a path, and later a stagecoach road, connecting Middle Tennessee to the Ohio River Valley. Much of what was shipped to and from early Nashville came along this road. Later, the road connecting the communities of Springfield and Clarksville crossed the Sulphur Fork Creek here. So Port Royal became a crossroads; the "port" through which goods and people were admitted to Middle Tennessee.
But wait a minute, some of you might ask: Since the Cumberland River could take people from Nashville to the Ohio River, why would a person need to take a road? There are two answers to this question: First of all, the Cumberland River flows FROM Nashville in a northward direction TO the Ohio River at an average speed of 2 to 4 miles per hour. Before the emergence of steamboat traffic in the 1820s, it was easy to travel downstream but hard to travel upstream. So a person might take a boat heading north from Nashville but take a stagecoach heading south into Nashville.
Second of all, a person might have wanted to travel by horse or coach for other reasons. Stagecoach traffic was more regular and much faster than boat traffic.
Many of the structures that used to exist in Port Royal were in this field.
The community of Port Royal was originally settled in 1782 and incorporated in 1797 by a man who had previously lived in Port Royal, South Carolina (thus the name). By this time there were already houses, an inn, stores and the Red River Baptist Church on this site. By the time it was founded, Port Royal contained some of Tennessee's more distinguished citizens; four of the 55 signers of Tennessee's original Constitution came from here. We believe that between 600 and 900 people lived here at that time.
As you can see from this 1821 map, Port Royal was about the only spot on the map back then between Springfield and Clarksville.
In 1838 eight detachments of the Trail of Tears came through here. It was here that many Cherokee spent their last night in Tennessee.
The Masonic Lodge building in 1899
Twenty-one years after the Trail of Tears, a building that served as a general store, Masonic Lodge, doctor's office and post office was built.
The same building today
Today that structure serves as the park's headquarters.
This 1930s photograph shows a woman in front of a Port Royal establishment known as Bertha Bourne's General Store.
PHOTO: Port Royal State Historic Park
Railroads came to Tennessee in the 1850s. The routes those railroads took created many new towns but spelled doom for others, including Port Royal. After the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and later the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway missed Port Royal, traffic through this community declined rapidly. In spite of this, two wonderful bridges were constructed here. And for many years the bridges alone were enough to keep people living and a few stores operating in this area.
The Sulphur Fork Creek bridge
One of those bridges crosses the Sulphur Fork Creek. It was built in 1890 and looks as good today as it ever has. For those of you interested in such things, the bridge utilizes a Pratt truss design -- one of the first such bridges to do so in the United States. Regardless of whether you know much about civil engineering, however, it's a neat bridge to walk across. It is also a safe bridge to walk across; the Clarksville-to-Springfield highway was moved a few hundred yards south of here years ago.
What's left of the covered bridge
The bridge across the Red River was a covered bridge, first built in 1903 and rebuilt three times since. Unfortunately this covered bridge was destroyed by a tornado in 1998. Today part of the bridge remains, but people aren't allowed to walk onto it. If you look at this picture, you can understand why the state doesn't allow people to walk onto it.
However, we need to point something out about this particular state historic park. For the time being, this is a great place to bring a picnic lunch, relax and explore. But it isn't all that big (26 acres) and it doesn't have a full-time visitors center. There isn't as much to see here as there is at, say, Old Stone Fort or Pinson Mounds. But if you call ahead (931-358-9696) the park manager will be glad to show you around. And one thing you might consider is to combine a trip to Port Royal with a trip to Dunbar Cave State Park
Now for some more photographs of our trip to Port Royal.
David Britton, who lives at the park and sees to its upkeep, shows off his collection of arrowheads to a young visitor.
Here's another view of what's left of the covered bridge.
If you look closely, you can see that the old stagecoach road wound through here on its way to the river. We can only surmise why the road curved like this. Perhaps a way to slow stagecoaches down?
If you look closely, you'll see foundations of various structures. Here's one.
Having crossed the Red River on the new highway bridge, we've found the old stagecoach road bed. This is the actual road taken by the Cherokees who came through here during the Trail of Tears.
Port Royal is a great place to enjoy the oldest sport in Tennessee -- pebble throwing. Here's a young visitor carrying on the tradition.
to be taken to the official web page of Port Royal State Historic Park.