Rendezvous on the Red

A day trip to Clarksville's finest sites along the historic Red River

A GUIDE TO EXPLORING THE CUMBERLAND RIVER BASIN

Red River watershed
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The city of Clarksville is growing as a popular destination for visitors to the Middle Tennessee area. Only an hour northwest of Nashville, Clarksville was established on the banks of the Cumberland River as a strategic port downstream of the capitol city.

Today, it is a hub of history, art, entertainment, and food, evoking a simultaneously vibrant and quaint atmosphere for visitors walking down its historic downtown streets.

Outside of the city’s boundaries, along sections of the Cumberland’s Red River tributary, you will find even more rich history that goes beyond your typical downtown Clarksville visit. The Red River is also the most recent site to receive funding for a Cumberland River Compact stream restoration project.

The Compact will lead a multi-phase project to restore the Oak Grove/West Fork of the Red River watershed, instilling best management practices and bank stabilization techniques to rapidly-eroding sections of the river, and performing educational outreach to members of the surrounding community.

In this guide, travel along the Red River as we make our way downstream to its confluence with the Cumberland, visiting historic sites, state parks, and great eateries along the way.

Tobacco’s Legacy
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Port Royal State Historic Park

3300 Old Clarksville Hwy, Adams, TN 37010

Our journey begins at the mouth of the Sulphur Fork, where the stream dumps into the Red River’s main branch 25 miles upstream from the Red’s drainage point into the Cumberland.

This section of the river played a central role in the area’s history as a transportation route. As part of the Great Western Road, which was documented as a buffalo path and Indigenous trade route by early white settlers, the river connected Indigenous communities across the North American continent for thousands of years.

More recently, the river played a crucial role in the flatboat tobacco industry of the Black Patch region, transporting the product downstream from massive plantations for distribution in New Orleans. It is here that the town of Port Royal once stood, a site whose complicated and rich history is now preserved by Port Royal State Historic Park. 

Across the road from the main parking lot, a walking path down the old Main Street to the Red River shores leads visitors through the former downtown area where merchandise stores, taverns, and doctor offices once stood to the town square, or “angle”, used to be during the port’s heyday as a state-operated tobacco inspection point. The town was established in 1797, one year after Tennessee statehood, and saw its peak from the 1840s-60s, until railroads circumvented the town and rendered flatboat transportation outdated. While only one of Port Royal’s original buildings (and its historic wrought iron bridge) still stands, old foundations and a smattering of interpretive wayside panels around the state historic park tell a story of the town that once was.

Port Royal’s Black Community
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Port Royal State Historic Park

3300 Old Clarksville Hwy, Adams, TN 37010

Port Royal, like many towns in the US, owes the majority of its success and progress to the stolen labor of enslaved people. The tobacco industry was built–  literally and figuratively–on the stolen labor of enslaved people who grew and harvested the crop and constructed the town of Port Royal itself. The park is dedicated to sharing the history of the enslaved, along with the unique history of the black community in Port Royal that rose after the Civil War.

After the Civil War, Port Royal saw a kind of “white flight” due to the railroad taking commerce and business to other communities within the Red River Watershed, like Adams and Guthrie. This created a unique opportunity for the creation of a black-incorporated community.

As you walk back from the river bank through the old main street, some of the foundation stones that can be seen are of black-owned businesses, houses, and fraternal orders, accompanied by wayside panels detailing all the businesses that once stood. One notable building now gone from this era of the town’s history includes Benevolent Society No. 3’s Lodge, a fraternal order whose Port Royal chapter is still active and reorganized in a nearby building outside the park as Benevolent Lodge Order 210.

The Benevolent Lodge and Mount Zion Baptist Church are both active organizations today and have served an important role throughout the black history of the town with the mission to “care for the sick and bury the dead”. The park also consults both organizations regularly to assist and approve of the stories told about the enslaved and formerly enslaved people of Port Royal.

Bridging History
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Port Royal State Historic Park

3300 Old Clarksville Hwy, Adams, TN 37010

As you’re standing on the old main street, you’ll notice the wrought iron bridge spanning the Sulphur Fork in front of you. This bridge, which earned a spot on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2020, used to be a part of the main road in town before Highway 76 was constructed.

The bridge spans the divide between Robertson and Montgomery Counties and is one of two wrought iron bridges left in Robertson county. Its iron frame stands out as one of the most recognizable features of the park. Walk onto the bridge and enjoy watching the water of the Sulphur Fork flow into the Red. On rainy days either north or east of the park, it is especially beautiful to see the two rivers collide with their opposing colors at the mouth of the Sulphur Fork.

Masonic Lodge
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Port Royal State Historic Park

3300 Old Clarksville Hwy, Adams, TN 37010

Next, make your way back across the main road to visit the only building still standing from the town of Port Royal: the Masonic Lodge. This building served as a meeting place for fraternal organizations, a general merchandise store, and even a telephone switchboard during the town’s history. The building was also the scene of a Night Rider attack during the Tobacco Wars, when Port Royal became the only town in Tennessee successfully attacked by Night Riders.

The park is currently undergoing historic preservation renovations to restore the building to replicate its original state. This includes replicating authentic flooring, paint colors, windows, doors, and even using a mixture of goat hair in the wall plaster as the building once had in its original state.

Once finished the building will house park offices upstairs and a replica general store museum with a small gift shop and interpretive panels to tell more about the history of the town and the greater Red River Valley the town is connected to. The site is also a part of the Civil War Trails program due to a trial that took place in the Masonic Lodge during the Civil War. An interpretive panel outside the lodge describes the trial in detail.

Trail of Tears Marker and River Bottom Trail
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Port Royal State Historic Park

3300 Old Clarksville Hwy, Adams, TN 37010

Once you’ve visited the former townsite, hop in your car and drive across the Red River on the W.D. Pete Hudson Memorial Bridge on Highway 238 to a gravel parking lot on the other side of the river.

This site, along with the old main street near the wrought iron bridge, is part of the National Trails System Trail of Tears Historic Northern Route. Between 1837 and 1838, over 10,000 Cherokee people traveled through Port Royal on their displacement from ancestral lands to Oklahoma territories. This site was the last stop in Tennessee on the Northern Route and today Port Royal State Historic Park is one of the only Trail of Tears sites that can highlight one of the most difficult parts of the journey: river crossings.

You can visit the markers on both sides of the river and see the swaths of cleared trail where Cherokee people were forced to march away from their homeland  to an unknown future. Read the wayside panels and reflect on this tragic and solemn aspect of the land’s history.

A Town Underwater
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Dunbar Cave State Park

401 Old Dunbar Cave Rd, Clarksville, TN 37043

The next leg of our journey takes us 11 miles downstream the Red River to our next destination: Dunbar Cave State Park. 

Start at the Visitors’ Center, which was constructed in the 1930’s as a bathhouse for a swimming pool during the park’s days as a resort site that was once owned by Roy Acuff. Once you have learned more about the park’s history inside the visitors’ center, walk along Swan Lake to make your way to the cave. An important story lies buried underneath the lake’s waters. 

The field that is now flooded as Swan Lake is part of the former site of Africanna town, a community of formerly enslaved African Americans connected to the contraband camp in Clarksville. The site’s location close to a freshwater source in the cave and its proximity to several nearby plantations made it a natural settlement selection for the formerly enslaved community surrounding the cave from 1862-1867. Evidence from Africanna town still lies in the ground under the water of Swan Lake.

Dunbar Cave
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Dunbar Cave State Park

401 Old Dunbar Cave Rd, Clarksville, TN 37043

Once you’ve walked on the path along Swan Lake, you’ll find yourself at the entrance of Dunbar Cave. Structural relics from the park’s use as a resort and dancehall during the 1930s and 40s still stand along the rocky walls of the cave’s entrance– the cool air from the cave acted as a natural air conditioning system of sorts during hot TN summers– but these artifacts only brush the surface of the cave’s history. 

The limestone cave, which goes back about 9 miles from its entrance, has been used for tens of thousands of years as a sacred space, shelter, and resource.

Beginning in prehistoric times, the cave’s importance as a sacred indigenous space began and continues into the present day. Many Indigenous groups, especially those with ancestry in the Southeastern United States and whose ancestry can be traced back to the Mississippian people still regard the area as an important place in their culture, history, and spirituality.

Approximately 800 years ago, Mississipian people left behind artwork in the cave depicting images connected to the spiritual and cultural beliefs of that people. Currently, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville are heavily involved in the interpretation of the cave’s story and assist with the public information regarding these stories. Tickets for a guided cave tour are available from May to September to experience this history firsthand through viewing the cave art. 

During your guided cave tour, you will have the chance to view four distinct rooms throughout the cave, each with unique cave drawings and geological features. All of the cave drawings were verified for authenticity by archeologists in the early 2000s and date back 700-800 years. The four cave rooms visited during your tour–the Ballroom, Great Relief Room, Independence Hall, and Dinosaur Bone Room– hold various drawings of geometric symbols, warriors, and Cherokee syllabary from more recent history, all of which the Eastern Band has interpreted and allowed for sharing on cave tours. Park Interpreters leading your tour will offer more detailed information regarding the interpretation of cave drawings and geologic features within the cave. 

Another aspect of the cave’s history comes from the different species which inhabit the environment. The cave habitat is home to a number of creatures who thrive in the cool air and water, such as salamanders, spiders, moths, crickets, and more. Keep your eye out for these animals and insects during your tour of the cave, though they may be spooked easily.

Unfortunately, the cave’s bat population was almost completely wiped out by White Nose Syndrome in recent years. Research students at nearby Austin Peay State University tested the cave’s waters and found blue algae apparent from development-related pollution, an issue that threatens a number of species living in the cave. These instances of water pollution and disease altering the cave’s ecosystem rapidly and dramatically speaks to the fragility of cave habitats and the importance of environmental stewardship in preserving these unique ecosystems. 

As you end your cave tour and make your way back to the visitors’ center, or perhaps along the other side of Swan Lake for a longer, scenic stroll, reflect on the rich history of the cave and its importance for the people and creatures who have inhabited it as a home and sacred space for thousands and thousands of years.

A taste of Korea, in Tennessee
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Dae Bak Chophouse

1949 Fort Campbell Blvd C, Clarksville, TN 37042

After visiting two state parks, you will probably be working up a good appetite. The Clarksville area has many great options for local places to grab a bite, from meat-and-threes to brewpubs and local bakeries. On this journey, we’re making a stop at the best Korean restaurant in Clarksville (and maybe even Tennessee): Dae Bak Chophouse.

Located another few miles downstream from the most recent stop on our journey, this one-woman business has been in Clarksville for 4 years and is a local staple for the “most authentic Korean food in Tennessee”. Everything that is cooked up and served at the restaurant is homemade by its owner, with service help from her family, including her daughter who, despite it being her day off, still gave us a full run-down of the menu and her best recommendations during my visit. 

With vegan and vegetarian options all at very affordable prices, Dae Bak has food for everyone in your group. If you are traveling with others along this journey, get several dishes to share with the table so you can try a taste of everything the restaurant has to offer. Favorites include spicy pork bulgogi, spicy beef soup, all varieties of their fried rice, and Dae Bak’s Clarksville famous egg rolls.

All dishes come with housemade seasoned soy sauce (you’ll never be able to enjoy normal soy sauce the same way again) and made-from-scratch banchan- or side dishes- such as kimchi. Can’t get enough of this food? Dae Bak’s generous portions will be sure to leave you with leftovers, but you can also buy jars of their kimchi to take home with you.

Customs House Museum and Cultural Center
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Customs House

200 S 2nd St, Clarksville, TN 37040

After you’ve filled your stomach on delicious Korean food, take your kimchi and travel six miles southeast to downtown Clarksville. You’ll cross the Red River as you make your way into the heart of the city, right before its drainage point into the Cumberland. No need to stop there now — we’ll get to that later.

Find a parking spot downtown, or in the Customs House Museum parking lot, and stroll to the historic Customs House Museum and Cultural Center. You won’t miss it- the museum’s unique architecture stands out against the other downtown buildings.  

The architectural style, a blend of Romanesque, Flemish, and Gothic, was the point of big controversy at the time of the building’s construction as a Post Office to accommodate the booming tobacco trade in 1898. 120 years later, the building has become the most recognizable symbol of Clarksville and serves the community as a center of history and cultural heritage.  

 Before its current use as a museum, the building served many other uses over its years, from its original purpose as a Customs House and Post Office to the offices of the Clarksville Department of Electricity. In 1972, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places and then began its run in its current use as a museum in 1984. 

Today, the museum is Clarksville’s art, history and science museum all in one, serving to “chronicle, document, and share the unfolding story of ‘becoming Clarksville.’” Once you buy a ticket, stroll around the 35,000 square feet of exhibit space to discover local history, learn and play in the newly-renovated hands-on children’s area and enjoy many types of artwork. The Museum boasts over 22,000 artifacts in its Collections, and many objects can be viewed online or within exhibits. The Museum also offers many educational programs and community events for all ages.

Downtown Clarksville
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Franklin Street

Franklin Street Clarksville TN 37040

Once you’re done at the Customs House, take some time to check out other sights in downtown Clarksville as you make your way to the waterfront for the final leg of our journey. 

From the Customs House, walk a block over to Franklin Street and peruse the variety of small shops, restaurants, and galleries along this main drag. Browse new and old favorite records at AndVinyl Records store, grab some locally-brewed beer at Blackhorse Brewpub, and take some photos outside the iconic Roxy Theatre sign. 

When you get to the public square, take a right and stop at the statue at the front of the lawn. This is the Tennessee Triumph Women’s Suffrage Monument, constructed in 2020 for the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. Tennessee was the last state in the union to ratify the amendment, which ended up passing by a two-vote margin. The authenticity of the statue’s subject was provided by using artifacts from the Customs House and the statue stands on the public square as a reminder for all the women in Clarksville who advocated for their right to vote. 

Once you reach the end of the public square, take a left onto Main Street and find the Upland Trail, an urban pedestrian walkway that will take you to your destination: McGregor Park and Riverwalk. Cross the pedestrian bridge over the bustling Route 41 and you’ll find yourself at the final location of our journey. 

Journey’s End at the Cumberland
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McGregor Park and Riverwalk

640 N Riverside Dr, Clarksville, TN 37040

We end our journey, and our day, at the Clarksville Riverwalk at McGregor Park. Here you can see beautiful views of the Cumberland River near its confluence point with the Red as you stroll along the Riverwalk.

The Riverwalk itself is two miles long and McGregor Park hosts a playground, picnic area, and river exhibit where you can learn more about the Cumberland River and its history along the city of Clarksville. The park is also a site of several notable city events throughout the year. Christmas on the Cumberland turns the Riverwalk into a tunnel of lights during the holiday season and Riverfest celebrates the end of the summer every Labor Day Weekend. 

As you walk along the Riverwalk, think about the incredible river you’re walking parallel to and its importance throughout the history of the land through which it flows. 

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