Port Royal: A Small State Park with a Long, Tear-Filled History
In addition to fishing and science, history is one of my life-long interests. Decades of hearing family stories of the Summerlins’ hardships, adventures and triumphs helped the men and women from long ago become as real to me as the modern-day storytellers telling the tales. So it’s no wonder that when I get an opportunity to visit a historic site I’m ready to learn about what took place there before I came along.
Last week was warm and muggy but when I reached Port Royal State Historic Park the thermometer registered in the low 80s, humidity was down from soggy to moist and a slight breeze was keeping the no-seeums at bay.
About five miles after exiting I-24 south of Clarksville, I pulled into an almost empty parking lot and stepped into a time warp behind a lovely old two-story brick building. I got a couple of brochures from the self-serve kiosk and headed around to the front of the building. The only door was locked up tight but I could see clearly through the unadorned front windows. There wasn’t a living soul in sight.
As it turned out, I was standing on the front porch of a pre-Civil War Masonic Lodge and General Store that is the only building surviving in a ghost town that at one time numbered between 600 and 900 souls. According to local legend, a ghostly mother and her unlucky son inhabited the second floor but that’s a story for another day.
Trails in the area were used by Native people long before contact with Europeans, but the arrival of longhunters (Kasper Mansker, Uriah Stone and Isaac Bledsoe) in 1769 presaged the arrival of settlers a few years later.
By the time Port Royal was incorporated as a town in 1797 there were homes, stores, an inn and a Baptist Church where the Great Western Stagecoach Road that connected Middle Tennessee to the Ohio River Valley crossed the Red River which was deep and wide enough to handle flatboats headed north to the Ohio River.
Today the 26-acre Port Royal State Historic Park packs a lot into a small area including canoe and kayak access to the Red River, ADA accessible restrooms, a four table picnic area including one that’s wheelchair accessible and good fishing as Sulphur Fork Creek empties into the Red River.
Despite the temptation to launch my canoe and bring out my fishing tackle, my goal of the day was to learn about Port Royal’s role during the the Trail of Tears, the 1838 and 1839 forcible removal of Native Americans from the Southeastern United States.
About 300 yards of the original Trail of Tears has been certified by the National Park Service and is protected at Port Royal. The trail is rated easy to walk but it’s tough to imagine the terrible sadness these travelers felt on their last stop for re-supply and rest before leaving Tennessee on the long road to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
Talks on “Remembering Indian Removal” by area historians and authors are part of the Trail of Tears 175th anniversary series. The free lectures are scheduled for 7 p.m. CDT on July 9, July 30, Aug. 13, Sept. 3 and Oct. 1. Seating is limited in the Masonic Lodge and General Store building so registration is required. For more information call 931-358-9696 or visit www.tn.gov/environment/parks/PortRoyal.
Drinks, fresh sandwiches, Mexican food and daily specials are prepared by Roussell Pacheco and his family at the Port Royal General Store and Café across Highway 238 from the Trail of Tears parking area. Information about canoe and kayaks rentals is available at the Red River Outpost, a log building next door or visit www.canoetheredriver.com.