Park History

The First Shelby Park

The origins of Shelby Park date to the 1890s when the Edgefield Land Company developed a private amusement park near the end of a streetcar line in what was then suburban Nashville.

Shelby Park was named for Dr. John Shelby, who once owned much of the land covered by the original Edgefield neighborhood, in lower East Nashville.  Though often told as fact, Shelby never owned land where the park was located.

Formally opened in the summer of 1892, Shelby Park, was advertised as a cool respite from the summer heat and humidity.  A clearing had been made at the edge of a wooded, shady area, for a place to for families to spend leisure time in the evenings. 

By the summer of 1893, a band stand had been built and local musicians and bands would entertain on Sunday afternoons.  It was estimated that 1500, to 2,000, people were gathering at the park on Sundays, many for organized Sunday School picnics.

Beginning in the spring and summer of 1894, the size of the park was increased.  Entertainment acts were brought into the park.  Nearly every Sunday, there was a balloon ascent, followed by a parachute drop.  There were jugglers, acrobats, dancers, rope walkers, and musicians, every week.  A huge tent was erected, with seating for 1,000 people and large stage for performers.  A Cuban acrobatic, dancer named Cyrene, was engaged for two weeks and gave two performances each day.  A switch back roller coaster was constructed and in operation by the first of July.

The park continued to be improved and by 1895 boasted of a Flying Jenny, swings, a ten pin bowling alley, a theater, a dance pavilion, a roller coaster, and ball throwing games of every description.

With the new century, the park became a quiet place. There were no more weekly newspaper notices of events at the parks, or reports that thousands had taken the street cars out.   Small groups still gathered for picnics and families came to enjoy the cooler air under the shade trees.  The casino theater was shuttered.  Manager Yeatman Alley had been employed to manage the casino at Glendale Park.  In 1902 Edgefield Land Company, offered the park for sale to the City of Nashville. Once again, the city declined and the park remained in private hands.

Shelby Park 

In 1903, the company went bankrupt, and in 1909 the Park board purchased the first 151 acres of the park from the creditors of the bankrupt land company for $40,000.  Although public support existed for naming the new public space “Riverside Park”, the original name of “Shelby Park” was retained by the board. Shelby Park opened to the public on the 4th of July in 1912.

The parks original featured included log shelters, a boathouse, windmill, cave spring grotto and the sulfur spring shelter near the Lillian Avenue entrance

In 1924, Nashville’s first municipal golf course opened in Shelby Park. Another nine holes opened in 1932 and are now occupied by Vinny Links

With the rise in team sports in the latter half of the century, many of the natural aspects of the park were traded for the addition of playing fields. With limited city resources, the historic features of Shelby Park fell into disrepair, decayed and most were eventually torn down.

Shelby Bottoms

1992, mayor Phil Bredesen convened the first meeting of what he called the “Green Space Working Group.” He had charged the 10 members with identifying open space for conservation. Metro went for the 800 acres for $4 million. Multi-use and primitive trails were constructed along with the Nature Center, followed by the bike/pedestrian bridge across the Cumberland to link the Bottoms with the Stones River Greenway, opening up the Bottoms to Donelson and creating a non-motorized commuting route to downtown. The acquisition of the flood-devastated Cornelia Fort Airpark in 2011 brought total Bottoms acreage to 960.

Cornelia Fort Airpark

Cornelia Fort Airpark was established in 1945, on land adjacent to Shelby Bottoms, two years after the death of and in honor of Cornelia Fort, the first American woman pilot to die on active military duty.

Cornelia Fort (1919-1943) was an important and inspiring figure in early women’s aviation.  An aviator, instructor (the first female instructor in Tennessee) and pioneer in women’s military aviations, she was a flight instructor in Honolulu during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Giving flying lessons on the morning of December 7, 1941, when a wave of Japanese Zeros swept past her, she was able to land in a hailstorm of machine-gun fire.  Cornelia Fort longed for service in the war effort, and found it in 1942, when she and a handful of women were invited to become part of a new organization, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), which later became part of the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) in 1943.  She was part of a pioneering group of 28 women who established an excellent record of service and safety in the face of resistance from many quarters and less than ideal conditions.  While on a ferrying mission from California to Dallas in 1943 she was killed in a mid-air collision. (Source—Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture)

Born to one of Nashville’s influential families, her father was Dr. Rufus E. Fort, Sr., owner of Fortland, one of Middle Tennessee’s most famous farms.  Fortland stood on a knoll overlooking 350 acres that are now part of Shelby Bottoms.  Built in 1852 by Hiram Vaughn, the large two-story brick home was acquired by Dr. Rufus E. Fort, Sr., and his wife, in 1909, ten years before the birth of their daughter Cornelia.   Dr. Fort was a surgeon and co-founder, vice president and medial director of the National Life and Accident Insurance Company in Nashville. 

Dr. Fort and Fortland were renowned for the breeding of Jersey cattle and also for the beautiful informal gardens of his wife, former Bostonian Louise Clark Fort.   The herd was begun by importing a number of the cattle from the Island of Jersey in 1911.  Dr. Fort improved the breed, and was recognized as the foremost authority in the U.S on Jersey breeding, winning honors across the country.  His wife’s gardens, noted for their informality and long borders, where known to be made available for the local Nashville community to enjoy. Dr. Fort died in 1940 and his wife sold Fortland to Clarke Gower before it burned in 1943.

In 1944, Norman Thomas of Chattanooga bought 200 acres in a bend in the Cumberland River adjacent to Fortland in order to build an airfield.  The Cornelia Fort Airpark was established in 1945, and named in honor of the pioneering female aviator Cornelia Fort. (An Aviation Adventure: Mizell, 2003.)