For as long as one can recall, Bays Mountain has always enjoyed a wonderful history of serving. While the Bays Mountain of decades past is very much different from the way we know it today, the common thread that strings each decade and generation together is service.
From the early 1800’s through the early-to-mid 1900’s, Bays Mountain provided for those families who settled on the mountain. The mountain provided settlers with land to farm, wood for building houses, a church and even a school. Obviously life was much different then, but relying on Bays Mountain to provide the resources, wildlife and harvest needed to survive and thrive was a given. It surely wasn’t easy, as there were challenges provided by any mountainous terrain, but those families who did make the mountain their home, proudly did so. Many of their stories are wonderfully told in our Farmstead Museum.
In 1907, one of Kingsport’s founders, J. Fred Johnson, began buying up land on Bays Mountain to create a lake to be used as a water source for fledgling Kingsport. By 1914, Johnson had purchased the roughly 1,200 acres that surrounded the watershed and sold it to Kingsport Waterworks Corporation who promptly began work in 1915 preparing to build the now iconic dam seen as visitors enter the common area atop Bays Mountain Park.
Bays Mountain’s dam was built by approximately 35-40 men who worked 10 hour days to complete the project. Many of those who assisted were family members of those living on and around the mountain. For example, mountain landowner Jerome Pierce provided a wagon and team of mules to haul the rock and steel needed to build the dam. Much of the rock was quarried from the mountain itself.
In 1916, water began flowing to the city and in 1917 the dam was raised six more feet creating a 44-acre lake, the same size the lake is today. Bays Mountain’s lake served the city until 1944, when the city had finally outgrown the lake’s capacity to provide. But in some ways, this is where the modern day Bays Mountain story begins.
From 1944 through 1964, Bays Mountain served locals in different ways: timber was selectively harvested, hikers enjoyed the early trails and views, while fisherman and hunters challenged their skills. As this usage grew, so too did the public’s interest in preserving the mountain for usage. Thus, in 1965, Mayor Hugh Rule appointed a committee to study ways to possibly develop the mountain into a park. Following the committee’s report, which included hiring a naturalist, the City of Kingsport hired the National Audubon Society to help design a park. Among those representing the Audubon Society was the park’s first director, Robert Holmes.
The National Audubon Society’s recommendations were to designate the area as a nature preserve to also allow hiking, naturalist-led activities, natural history studies, research and leisure activities such as photography, painting, wildlife observation and school day-use. They also recommended building a maintenance shed, a residence for a caretaker and an interpretive nature center. In short, the park was to be of great service to the public, including schools, while also serving to preserve the natural habitat it featured.
As development began in 1968, so did visitation on a very limited basis. Work was still being completed on the service/entrance road and the parking lot remained unfinished, meaning a strict 100 car limit was enforced. In 1969, the park’s first naturalists were hired, one part-time and one full-time, to accommodate visitors and park users.
With assistance from Eastman Chemical Company (then known as Tennessee Eastman) and from a bond referendum voted on by citizens, work began in 1970 on the park’s nature center and planetarium. The Nature Interpretive Center was dedicated and opened on May 24, 1971, with eight park staff on board to continue the work that had already begun in serving the public and numerous school groups already visiting.
Since that time, the park has only continued to grow and… serve. Animal habitats have been added such as the otter habitat, deer habitat, Herpetarium housing native reptiles and amphibians, and in 1992, gray wolves joined the lineup of species featured at the park. The Farmstead Museum was built and opened in 1988 preserving the story of those families mentioned earlier who lived on the mountain years ago.
In 2009, the park experienced another great development when the planetarium was totally renovated and upgraded. The $1.3 million project gave the new planetarium improved seating, 6.1 surround sound, dome, and thanks to a Zeiss star projector it also now has a star field so realistic visitors can use a pair of binoculars to see stars on the dome they cannot see with the naked eye! And the really neat thing is, thanks to the technology, the viewer is totally immersed in the subject being shown. For example, the first planetarium show upon re-opening, “Connections,” began with a walk in the woods looking at wildlife. Visitors literally felt like they were walking along a trail in the woods! And so, the new planetarium will allow us to serve schools in exciting new ways while offering the potential to do even more.
Today, Bays Mountain Park & Planetarium serves much more than 200,000+ visitors each year. There are now 40 miles of trails for hiking, with 26 of those approved for mountain biking… an adventure ropes course with zip line has been added… and, of course, we still have the 44-acre lake that pretty much started it all.