Donelson Diary

Interesting Intimate Items of Donelson's Daily Developments

Donelson, Davidson County, Tennessee

Nashville 120 Years Ago

[Originally published on May 1, 1947, under the heading, "Nashville 50 Years Ago"]

By Mary Alice Adams

To the visitor during the decades of the 1880's and 1890's, the most impressive features in Nashville were the old suspension bridge across the Cumberland, which was then considered the most majestic and impressive structure of its kind in the South, the Capitol building, the Polk Mansion and the Old Maxwell House. Fifty years ago there were no apartment houses, no sky-scrapers, not even electric street railways.

The city was lighted by gas and coal-oil lamps. An old man used to go around after the moon rose, in "the light of the moon," and extinguish all the street lights, as a matter of economy.

All Visit Maxwell House

Truly, the Maxwell House was the heart of Nashville. If you had eaten a juicy beef-steak in the architecturally-perfect old Maxwell House dining room with well-trained waiters flying around, it would be something to remember. Every president of the United States or other notables who visited Nashville at that time was a guest at the old hotel.

At the middle of the crossing of Church Street and Fourth Avenue, the corner of the hotel, was located a turntable where the little mule cars turned in different directions.

At this point was an array of hacks and horses, presided over by men in blue uniforms and brass buttons. Inside the hotel a mellow light was always burning.

A bar-room occupied a prominent place. The rotunda was a free forum where many a distinguished orator had stood.

Indignant Nashville

The best description of the Maxwell House of the period was by O. Henry though at the time it was published it created much indignation in Nashville.

[Note:  The old Maxwell House hotel was destroyed by fire on Christmas night 1961]

Other buildings of the long ago were the Union Railway Station under the hill, below the east end of the present Church Street via-duct. There was Polk Place with President James K. Polk's mausoleum in the yard, a mecca for visitors. The residence was occupied by the venerable widow of the President. Her niece, Mrs. G. W. Fall and husband and beautiful little daughter resided with her. The most fashionable residential portion of Nashville was then on what is now Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Fashion was beginning to move out Broadway. Few streets had names on the corners. Strangers were often confused and had to ask many questions.

A number of fine residences occupied Church Street from Sixth going west. The DeMoville residence, with statues of wild animals prominent in the front yard, was one of these. Dr. M. M. Cullom, then a little country boy, said he used to be frightened into tears when his parents took him down Church Street past the DeMoville home.

Colonel E. W. Cole, then reputed to be the wealthiest man in Nashville, had his palatial home on Church Street where the Doctor's Building now stands.

Too Much Pressure

The new City Hospital and water works had not been built 50 years ago. The old Hospital was located on Second and Third Avenue near the Hay Market. You could smell Iodoform when you got within a block of it. Dr. William Morrow's fine residence was just beyond the Hospital on the east side of Second Avenue. Dr. Morrow was a big businessman and one of Nashville's "live wires."

The City Waterworks and Reservoir were located on the river where the General Hospital and Nurse's Home now stand. A year or two later the Waterworks moved up the river and the Reservoir was located where it now stands on a commanding hill on Eighth Avenue. The pressure of the water was so much greater than that from the old reservoir that water mains broke and geysers spouted all over town. One of the worst of these was on Seventh Avenue opposite the Vine Street Christian Church. The water spouted 75 feet in the air and hurled stones and other debris on top of the Church and on adjoining buildings. A large catfish was also thrown out. Evidently it had been taken into the intake when just a baby.

The first office buildings were the Jackson Building at the corner of Church and Fifth Avenue and the Cole Building where the American National Bank is now located on Fourth Avenue. There were some apartments in the Jackson Building but the Cole Building, except for the first floor, was exclusively devoted to offices. It was known as "Cole's Folly" and predictions were made that it would never be filled. Colonel Cole proved to have foresight, however, for the building was soon filled. Sam Jones, on his visits to Nashville, used to hold meetings in the Nashville Centennial Building on Eighth Avenue. The Methodist Publishing House was on the northeast corner of the Public Square. The tallest building in Nashville, not counting the dome of the Capitol and a few church spires, was the Berry-DeMoville building at the southeast corner of the square.

Educational Center

Nashville was even then taking rank as a great educational center. Young Vanderbilt and Young Fisk had made their advent. There was the University of Nashville in south Nashville with its medical department on Broadway. Roger Williams college was on the site of the present Peabody College, the successor to the University of Nashville.