PORT ROYAL, Tenn. — The tranquility of Port Royal belies its history. This unincorporated community straddling the line between Montgomery and Robertson counties where Sulphur Fork Creek flows into the Red River once was a hopping place important in international trade and America’s move west.

Local folklore even says it was a contender to be the state capital, perhaps because Tennessee’s third governor lived nearby and conducted some business from home.

Growth, fame and Nashville’s modern-day traffic never materialized here, and you’d never know about Port Royal’s potential if it weren’t for some building foundations, a few historic markers and the storytelling skills of Bobby Cooley.

Cooley, a state park ranger, is the only full-time staffer at Port Royal State Historic Park, one of the smallest units in the park system.

“We pack a lot into 30 acres,” Cooley said, while telling stories about the world’s largest tobacco plantation, a federal tobacco inspection station, a boat building industry, the Trail of Tears, a failed attempt to establish a silk industry, the resilience of freed Blacks after the Civil War and multiple floods that turned Sulphur Fork Creek and the Red River into destructive torrents.

That’s a lot to consider for a placid place out in the countryside between Clarksville and Adams.

Early settlers pushed into the area about 1789, and Port Royal was established in 1797, one year after Tennessee statehood. Tobacco became a major crop, and Port Royal was strategically located. After federal inspection at Port Royal, half-ton barrels of tobacco began the long journey to England.

You can spread a picnic blanket on the very spot flatboats were built to carry tobacco on the Red, Ohio and Mississippi rivers for transfer to oceangoing ships in New Orleans. It was a perilous trip, and one of every four boats was lost. Rivermen returned to Tennessee on the Natchez Trace, mostly on foot.

How big was tobacco farming? Cooley says that nearby Wessyngton’s 13,000 acres made it the world’s biggest tobacco plantation. Almost 300 enslaved Africans produced 250,000 pounds of tobacco a year.

Port Royal also was on a pioneer route west. When Missouri and Arkansas opened for settlement, the majority of people leaving from the Southern states passed through Port Royal. Between 1837 and 1838, that traffic also included approximately 12,000 Cherokee people forcibly marched on the Trail of Tears from their Appalachian homes to Oklahoma.

In the early 1840s, a silk mill was built here, and Gov. James Jones delivered his inauguration speech in a suit made from Port Royal silk. Cooley said the effort died when a pandemic killed the silkworms.

Port Royal was fading by the 1850s. The railroads bypassed it, and then the Civil War turned everything upside down.

Freed Blacks added chapters to Port Royal’s story after the Civil War. They opened businesses, founded Mt. Zion Baptist Church (the congregation remains active) and established the Benevolent Lodge to care for the sick and bury the dead. The church and lodge were victims of racial violence, most recently in 1994, when a lodge building was burned. It reorganized and today is known as Benevolent Lodge No. 210.

For decades in the 1900s, a covered bridge was a county landmark, but more than one iteration of the bridge succumbed to floods.

“The 2010 flood (the one that devastated downtown Nashville) removed all ideas of building another covered bridge,” Cooley said.

Well above the high water mark is Port Royal’s one substantial building. It is a general store and Masonic lodge from 1859 that is gradually undergoing restoration as a visitors center.

That’s were you’ll meet Cooley if you book one of his weekend walking tours. One focuses on Port Royal’s history, while the other concentrates on the Trail of Tears. Tours are $5, and reservations are available online.

Whether you walk with Cooley or stroll on your own and absorb the information packed onto historical markers, pause before you depart. Contemplate the hopes, dreams and labor that lived and died where Sulphur Fork Creek flows into the Red River.

Enjoy Tom Adkinson’s Tennessee Traveler destination articles the second and fourth Friday every month. Adkinson, author of “100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die,” is a Marco Polo member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.

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