The Stone Steps

William Wayne Weems

2013 by William Wayne Weems



Photo of a Native American stone terrace.
Here is short story that may interest your readers.  As there can be no photographs to provide needed illustrations I have included by own crude drawings (in HTML format!):

The 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.
Indeed, 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.
As I 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Today (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.

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