Long after the state of Tennessee abandoned plans for a state park in Bristol, Tenn., residents and city leaders persisted.
The result is the Stacy Grason Memorial at Steele Creek Park — better known as Steele Creek Park — a 2,200-plus acre municipal park owned and operated by the city of Bristol, Tenn.
Steele Creek, the third largest municipal park in Tennessee, features a nature center, nine-hole golf course, a multi-use lodge and shelters, paddle-boating on the 54-acre lake, 21 miles of hiking trails, soccer fields, disc golf, and the Steele Creek Express Train.
Friends of Steele Creek Nature Center and Park have kicked off a year-and-a-half-long celebration of the park’s 50th anniversary. But without the determination of a few, the park might have remained the mostly underdeveloped property discovered by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s.
“It makes you wonder how we got that park because it wasn’t meant to be,” said Terry Napier, director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Bristol, Tenn.
In the late 1930s, TVA published “Scenic Resources of the Tennessee Valley,” which identified the “Steele Creek Tract,” a 2,800-acre site as having potential for being a recreational area.
“Through the [U.S.] Department of the Interior, they began looking across the United States at areas that could serve as national parks,” Napier said. “Around 1938, they began the condemnation process, looking to purchase 2,500 acres.”
Between 1939 and 1942, the land was deeded to the Department of the Interior. In November 1939, the area was named Watauga State Park, and members of Civilian Conservation Corps Co. 420 arrived to begin the process of damming Steele Creek to form a recreational lake. Additional plans were drawn for a 400-acre recreational area centered around the lake; the rest was to remain a wildlife and forest preserve.
On July 1, 1942, the dam worked was stopped because of the war and the workers were sent home. The Department of Interior deeded the majority of the park to the state of Tennessee.
“As of 1945, I can find no listings — state or federal — of Watauga State Park. It basically ceased to exist,” Napier said.
Residents and leaders of the city were disappointed. The dam was half-built. The state had turned its attention to developing a 950-acre area in Kingsport, a park eventually named for its proximity to the ancient war and trading path used by the Cherokee.
The state, no longer interested in developing Watauga State Park, began looking for other uses for the land. The land was leased to a farmer in 1947.
In 1949, the board of commissioners of the city of Bristol urged the state of Tennessee and the Conservation Department, through a resolution, to resume construction of Watauga State Park. The following year, the city of Bristol was leased 400 acres from the Tennessee Department of Conservation for local recreational use.
In 1953, the state disposed of Watauga State Park by leasing 405 acres to the city of Bristol to be developed as a city park.
“They have washed their hands of any responsibility for a park in Bristol,” Napier said.
The Bristol community put their heads together and began proposing public uses for the land — including the construction of a skeet range and a golf course.
“In April 1957, development plans were approved for the Watauga Park Area. Everybody sees this as a great thing for Bristol,” Napier said.
In 1961, Bristol Mayor Stacy Grason announced plans for “a park at Steele Creek,” a committee was appointed to develop Steele Creek Park, and a park superintendent was hired.
In February 1962, a $120,000 bond resolution was approved for development of a playground at the park, and plans for a miniature railroad were approved. In addition, money was allocated to finish the construction of the dam.
In May 1963, a barn for 16 horses, stables and riding trails were opened to the public on the east side of the park.
In March 1964, the state awarded a 99-year lease of the land to Bristol, and on June 6, 1964, the park officially opened.
The park continued to develop during the next several years. The miniature train was installed. Picnic facilities were finished. The pro shop and a firing range were built. A nine-hole golf course was added.
Some things didn’t pan out, or didn’t last. Talk of a zoo was abandoned. Kiddie carnival rides were added, but are gone now, as is the firing range and the paddlewheel boat. The stables were removed to make room for a camping area. In 1975, the swimming area was permanently closed after the detection of significantly high levels of coliform bacteria.
In June 1971, 1,212 acres were deeded to the city from the U.S. Forestry Service. Two years later, the park was officially named Stacy Grason Memorial at Steele Creek Park.
In June 1973, the city received by deed an additional 963 acres from the state of Tennessee.
Steele Creek ranks only behind a Chattanooga park and Bays Mountain Park as the third largest municipal park in Tennessee, with more than 150 acres of developed recreational area, the 54-acre lake, and almost 2,000 acres of undeveloped forested knobs.
Since taking the helm of Parks and Recreation several years ago, Napier and his staff have worked to rebuild the deteriorating areas of the park.
“We’re trying to fix the years of neglect and use. It’s not horrible, but it needs some TLC,” he said. “We’re trying to go in and put it back the way the citizens deserve it to be.”
In July, 12,500 cars drove through the main gate. Traffic counts don’t include vehicles that enter through the two smaller entrances.
“It is very used by the community and is very much a regional attraction,” Napier said. “It is truly the regional park the founding members believed it could be.”
The city will celebrate the park’s 50th anniversary next summer. For more information about the park, visit h t t p : / / w w w. bristoltn.org/steelecreekpark.cfm.