Nashville has grown a lot over the years.
It used to be that the state Capitol could be seen in every view of the Nashville skyline. However, starting in the 1950s, downtown Nashville began getting buildings so tall that they eclipsed the state Capitol. By the 1980s, people were worried that it would soon no longer be possible to see the state Capitol from a distance, regardless of the view.
With Tennessee’s 200th birthday approaching, state officials decided to create an urban park sort of like the National Mall in Washington D.C. The idea developed into the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park — an outdoor museum of Tennessee history and geography unveiled during Tennessee’s Bicentennial in 1996.
This tour will take you to some of its best parts.
The Bicentennial Mall is shaped like a line (see map on the left). At the south end of it you will find a 200-foot-long granite map of Tennessee. Since you can walk all over this map, and since every river, county, city, town and highway in the state is on it, this may be the best place in Tennessee to learn about the state’s geography.
This is, after all, the only place where you can walk from Johnson City to Knoxville to Chattanooga to Nashville to Memphis in about 25 seconds!
Once you’ve had enough of the map, walk under the train trestle. Here you will find the Rivers of Tennessee Fountains. There are 33 fountains, each representing the rivers of Tennessee (from huge rivers such as the Mississippi to small ones such as the Harpeth). The fountains on the west side of the fountains represent rivers in West Tennessee; the fountains in the middle represent rivers in Middle Tennessee; and the fountains on the east side represent rivers in East Tennessee.
And, as you can probably guess, a lot of people play in these fountains in the summer!
There are multiple ways to proceed north from here:
If you walk right through the middle of the park, you can either walk down a shady sidewalk or the middle of the grassy field, with clear views of the view ahead of you and the Capitol behind you.
If you use the sidewalk on the right (east) side of the park, you will go down the Walkway of Counties— a series of granite markers with detailed information about each of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
If you use the sidewalk on the left (west) side of the park, you will move down the Pathway of History — a long, granite wall containing detailed information about Tennessee’s history. You may notice that time “starts” at the south end of the park and progresses as you head north. You may also notice that the wall “breaks up” during the Civil War (1861 to 1865) and comes back together after Tennessee rejoined the Union. This symbolizes the fact that Tennessee itself was split, with West and Middle Tennessee being pro-Confederate, and East Tennessee being pro-Union.
Here are some things to look out for as you head north through the park:
* About half way up the Walkway of Counties, you will find the remains of limestone columns. Why are these here and where did they come from? When the State Capitol was built in the 1850s, the columns around it were made from Tennessee limestone. As they years went by, this limestone chipped in places, and was eventually replaced with columns made of Indiana limestone. These columns at the Bicentennial Mall are some of the old columns which were removed from the Capitol.
* About four-fifths of the way up the Walkway of History you will find the World War II Memorial. There is a lot to see here about why the war took place and where it was fought. In the middle of the memorial, you will find a spherical stone globe of the earth which floats on water, made in such a way so that a person can rotate the earth in anyway possible.
* Finally, at the north end of the mall you will find the Court of 3 Stars, and here you will notice a series of 95 carillons. (A carillon is a set of stationary bells hung in a tower.) These bells play Tennessee-related songs throughout the day, such as the Tennessee Waltz and Rocky Top.
In any case, as you can guess by now, the Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park is a great place to visit and an even better place to take a field trip.
As you plan your trip, you may want it to coincide with one of the living history events that take place there, such as the annual Tennessee Timeline in October.
You may also want to combine a visit to the mall with a visit to the new Tennessee State Museum, which is right next door.
Click here for a schedule of upcoming events.