earliest books on the history of Nashville were filled with expressions
of wonder about the prehistoric stone ruins that were scattered
throughout this area, and intense speculation as to what became of
those who constructed them. I witnessed the destruction of what were
possibly some of those prehistoric structures … I protested
to officials, but no one agreed with my contentions or seemed to care
about the objects of my concern.
few except the children who lived in that area seemed to know about the
stone faced terraces we called the “stone steps”.
They were five in number, six to eight feet high, and they stretched
along the steep lower south slope of a hill immediately to the North of
the Melrose Shopping Center rear parking lot, running parallel
to Biloxi Avenue which traversed the hill higher up.
That densely wooded area through which they ran descended to a narrow
swampy flat in which a sizable empty foundation of cut stone sat, a
narrow staircase of the same stone descending down one of its walls to
the muck at the bottom. The terraces reminded one of the agricultural
constructs of the Incas and ancient Mesoamerican peoples, although on a
significantly smaller scale and created by using retaining walls of
carefully fitted rough stones.
recall, their demise was linked to the disposition of the City of
Nashville’s “storm sewer” water before a
Metropolitan Government system was established. “Storm
sewer” water was relatively innocuous rainstorm runoff (as
opposed to the contents of “sanitary sewers”) and
was dumped by Nashville at its city limits. Davidson County forced an
easement for this “storm sewer” water to flow
through the then residential community of Berry Hill to
Brown’s Creek. (Blue arrows on map). The owners of the
Melrose Shopping Center had permitted construction companies to dump
“clean” rock and dirt fill in the lot at the rear
of their paved parking area until the Davidson County government
told them to halt, as this dumping was beginning to restrict the flow
of “storm sewer” water. However, a local
construction company made a successful bid on a major project
predicated on dumping excess rock and soil behind the Melrose Center,
as they had in the past. They were stunned to find this was no longer
permitted, and dismayed to find the only alternative site then open was
18 miles away. Their bid did not cover those expenses, so they were
delighted to get permission to dump off the margin of Biloxi Avenue and
down the steep slope there. This, of course, overloaded the first
terrace, which then burst and took out the second terrace, and so on.
Horrified, I protested to a supervisor, a sweaty, balding man in a
fedora hat. He told me to buzz off, as his crews had the necessary
permits and permission from the property owners to dump there. And dump
they did, until only a small portion of the terraces remained.
When I returned to Nashville
after the Vietnam War Interstate Highway 65 had plowed its way south
along the westerly margin of the railroad right of way, taking out a
sizable portion of the hill north of the Melrose Center, eliminating
the fill area behind the Melrose Center rear parking lot, turning
Biloxi Avenue into a dead end street and solving all of the
area’s drainage issues. But paradoxically the few remaining
walls of the stone terraces were now exposed, and it was painfully
evident locals had been surreptitiously harvesting stone for those
areas for their own purposes. Before those fragmentary walls were all
gone I asked a State Archeologist to examine them.
State Archeologist had an interesting take on this matter. On the very
top of the subject hill once stood the hollow brick shell of what had
obviously been a splendid mansion before the Civil War.
Archeologist noted that the Middle Tennessee area had a thriving wine
industry before the Civil War, and said the family that lived in the
old mansion referenced above had been known for their fine local
vintages. He speculated that they had created the terraces with slave
labor to cultivate their wine grapes.. He thought the open
foundation I referenced (by this time long buried) had likely housed a
wine press. He also noted stacked stone fences were common throughout
the Middle Tennessee region in the early 1800’s.
I disagreed. While the rich
family may well have used the terraces for grape production I submitted
they merely used structures already present on their property. Such
constructs are not necessary for grape cultivation, and would seem
prohibitively expensive to build on a whim, even with slave labor. I
challenged the Archeologist to cite any other terraces of similar
construction and antiquity anywhere in the Mid-State, knowing he could
not. While the buried foundation had been made of cut stone mortared
together, the walls of the terraces had not been simply stacked up as
in local fences … they were faced with sizable native stones
so carefully fitted together they had held up the earthen burden of
their terraces for at least 100 years prior to their destruction, and
very possibly for much longer. The Archeologist pointed out that he had
never had a chance to examine the structures I described. He said the
crumbling and plundered wall fragments that remained could only support
speculations and no conclusions.
(June 2013) the Melrose complex is undergoing a massive
renovation and reconstruction involving the entirety of the old rear
parking lot. Decades ago the last few stones of our childhood
“stone steps” disappeared, and except for this
narrative there seems to be no record that they ever existed.