History of Tennessee State Parks System

This year’s article series, celebrating Tennessee State Park’s 75th Anniversary, would not be complete without a look at the history of the park system. The idea for state parks grew from several movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. For starters, citizens saw the benefits of parks, for both nature and human beings. While cities were rapidly expanding, forests and wilderness were disappearing. Habitats were quickly losing ground and needed protection. Parks could do just that, protect the natural world from the encroachment of concrete. Parks were not only beneficial for nature, but people’s health and society as a whole as well. Parks gave people a chance to recreate, or “re-fresh” and “re-create” their energy and enthusiasm for work and daily lives. Although it was a new concept to set land aside for public use and enjoyment, there was a strong sentiment about this. Many believed the government had a responsibility to provide recreation opportunities for its citizens.
There were also events in America’s history that propelled the state park movement. In 1929 the stock market crashed leaving many Americans out of work. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created many New Deal programs; these programs were two fold, they put the country back to work and many dealt with the nation’s deteriorating land. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), all New Deal programs, along with other federal agencies, the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service addressed the welfare of the land through conservation projects.
It is at this point that Tennessee State Parks System’s story commences. Many of our state parks have their beginnings from federal programs. TVA purchased land and designated some of it for parks and then later sold them to the state. The list is long, but some parks include Norris Dam, Harrison Bay, Warriors’ Path, and Panther Creek. Of the many conservation projects the CCC and WPA worked on, developing state parks was one of them. Big Ridge, Pickett, Cedars of Lebanon, Chickasaw and many more have cabins, trails, picnic areas, and swimming beaches that were built in the 1930’s by the men of the CCC and WPA. Both the CCC and WPA used natural materials, such as wood and stone, for building material; this is known as “parkitecture.”
Through the Homestead Act, also under Roosevelt’s administration, Cumberland Mountain State Park was built as a recreation area for 250 families which moved to Cumberland County to settle and farm the county. Other parks began from restoration projects. After years of poor farming practices land that was no longer usable was restored, such as Standing Stone, Natchez Trace, Cedars of Lebanon, and Chickasaw State Parks. Land was purchased by federal agencies, farmers were relocated to better land, erosion control was performed, and finally reforestation efforts were made.
Much of the land from the first parks came from federal agencies and programs, but land also came from private families and businesses. In the 1930’s Stearns Coal and Lumber Company donated land that would become Pickett State Forest and Park, and in 2007 the Tennessee Park system received land from Bowater Inc.
With the foundation of the state park movement and where the land came from Tennessee parks could blossom. On May 21, 1937 Governor Gordon Browning signed legislation which created Tennessee State Parks. A year later Harrison Bay became the first state park when TVA transferred the land. As mentioned, many parks got their start in the 1930’s through conservation projects and federal programs.
During the 1940’s and 1950’s parks strived to get citizens to visit their state parks. By 1957 everyone in Tennessee was within 50 miles of a state park. The time between the 1960’s and 1970’s was a time of returning to nature and culture. Citizens and the parks focused on its natural and cultural resources. In 1968 the Tennessee Scenic Rivers Act passed; Hiwassee/Ocoee was one of the first rivers to benefit from this act. 1971 was another important year as the Tennessee Trails Act and Natural Areas Act were passed. Radnor Lake was the first area to be designated under the Natural Areas Act. It was during the 1970’s that over 20 parks were established!! 1978 marked the first year of Tennessee State Park’s Running Tour; nine years later in 1987 the bicycle tour Bike Ride Across Tennessee (BRAT) began.
The Iris Fund was created to help with planting/maintaining native plants and invasive removal. To help this fund Tennessee State Parks license plates were first issued in 1993. Part of the 1996 Olympics were held at a Tennessee State Park! The Canoe/Kayak Slalom competition was held on the Ocoee River. 2007 was a monumental year for Tennessee State Parks. The park system was distinguished as “Best in the Nation,” having the best managed park system, and was awarded the Gold Medal. In addition to celebrating 75 years, 2012 also saw the addition of the 54th park, Cummins Falls State Park. Today the park system is made up of 54 parks representing natural, cultural, and historical importance. Stay tuned as the park system is always changing through additional parks, changing technology to make parks more accessible, wildlife and wild flora are put on/removed from threatened/endangered lists, and acts to make the land, water, and air cleaner.
Pictures from the State of Tennessee.

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