One hundred twenty-eight years ago this month, city movers-and-shakers were on edge, worried about whether they could capture a huge prize of civic investment that was almost within their grasp.
If they had failed, Nashville would be a very different place today. And yet their anxious moments have gone unrecorded by historians.
In the spring of 1873, New York tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was prepared to endow a new university that would instantly be the richest in the South. In a letter dated March 17, he offered an initial gift of a half-million dollars, with more to come, and said the new institution should be "properly located" somewhere "in or near Nashville."
Vanderbilt left the site selection to one man, Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire of Nashville. And his letter left a lot of wiggle room, when viewed from a distance. "Near" could be defined in various ways.
Nashville clearly had the inside track as a location. But within days, cities and towns across the battle-scarred state seized upon the geographical vagueness of the bequest to stake their claims to the Yankee largess. In a region whose economy had barely begun to recover from the war's destruction, many were quick to see what Commodore Vanderbilt's university could be worth.
The Methodist Advocate of Atlanta tallied up the likely economic benefits: "A student who spends forty weeks at such a University will pay for board, clothes, light, fuel, books, stationery and other necessaries or luxuries" at least $250 a year, and some would pay up to $1,200, the publication calculated.
It was estimated that 500 students would generate $250,000 a year in local spending, with more to come from faculty — and then there were secondary gains:
"Such an institution would draw around it many other well-to-do families for the purpose of enjoying the literary society and privileges or to educate their children, and they would spend from $1,000 to $2,000 annually."
Salivating over such an economic boon, municipalities were more than ready to start a bidding war. The Memphis Chamber of Commerce said it could offer "inducements" of $200,000 to $250,000. Murfreesboro offered $200,000.
Jackson, Tenn. offered the grounds of an existing college, plus $100,000. Chattanooga and Athens, Tenn. each made pitches to McTyeire. Shelbyville was said to be preparing an offer.
The Knoxville Chronicle displayed a support for Vanderbilt University not since seen in that locale: "We have it in our power to secure the location of this Central University in Knoxville if we will only do it," the paper editorialized.
The competition seemed to catch Nashville flat-footed. Press accounts from early April 1873 betray little concern locally about the offers coming in from around the state. But then a rival appeared on the doorstep — and attracted friendly attention from McTyeire.
On April 15, McTyeire visited a site in the neighboring city of Edgefield, an independently governed bedroom community across the Cumberland River from Nashville. The news that Edgefield was offering the land and an undisclosed amount of money, already raised by a public appeal, sent a shock wave through Nashville.
"Now what will Nashville do?" asked the Nashville Union and American. "Will her citizens stand longer idle?" An urgent meeting would be held at the McKendree church for townspeople to plot strategy, the paper announced, fretfully adding:
"We hope that something will be done to awaken the people of Nashville to the importance of the opportunity they seem about to lose."
The tone of newspaper coverage became more dire as the weeks went by. On April 27, the Union and American complained that owners of some prospective Nashville sites were demanding "exorbitant prices," while others were conditioning any contributions to a fund-raising campaign on locating the institution at one site or another — a "dog in the manger policy," in the paper's words.
Outsiders, meanwhile, reveled at the prospect that Nashville would blow its chance. The McMinnville New Era sneered that Vanderbilt must "feel mighty good over his munificent gift of $500,000 to such ... selfish, old fogy citizens."
Where in Nashville to put the university was also up for debate. Among the "Committee on Subscriptions" that had belatedly begun trying to raise funds for Nashville to offer, some favored the "Moore place, on the Nolensville Pike," while others advocated the "Taylor place" in West Nashville.
One member, a Mr. Burns, was "very anxious that the University should be located either in Edgefield or in North Nashville, as he desired that the Public Square should be the centre of business," the Union and American reported.
By May 4, the Union and American was in a full lather about Nashville's teetering prospects. The newspaper exhorted: "Gentlemen of the committees, Wake up! What you do to-morrow before 4 o'clock in the afternoon, may determine whether the location shall be in Nashville or Edgefield, or neither."
In the end, all the worrying and fund-raising may not have made much of a difference. On May 9, McTyeire chose the Taylor place and some adjoining property "situated between the Hillsboro Pike and the extension of Broad Street," seventy-five acres in total.
Owners did donate some of the property, and the subscription campaign was reported to have raised over $30,000 — though it's not clear how much, if any, was actually collected and given to the university.
Other entities pitched in on what amounted to a modest incentive package. The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway extended a spur to the campus site to transport building materials. The Nashville Gas Company agreed to lay pipelines to the buildings free of charge, as did the city's water authorities.
The Republican Banner, Nashville's other newspaper, described the chosen site: "It is, indeed, a fine location — situated south of the Broad Street Railroad, about a mile and a half from the Capitol — in full view of that noble edifice and the city generally, as well as of the surrounding country.
"We can well imagine what a magnificent panorama will be spread out before the eye of the spectator, looking out from the lofty towers of the University, when it shall be built.... It will be 'a thing of beauty and joy' for many future generations."
- ALEX B FRUIN INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDACE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; CANDANCE F STEFANSIC INHERITANCE TRUST; FRUIN, ALEX B TRUSTEE; FRUIN ALEX B INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC, CANDACE F TRUSTEE; STEFANSIC CANDACE F INHERITANCE TRUST; STEFANSIC CANDANCE F INHERITANCE TRUST
- ROSS, BRIDGETT D
- COOKE, ETHEN LANYARD TRUSTEE; COOKE, ETHEN LEWIS ESTATE
- JACOBS, JESSICA ALEXANDRA; JACOBS, ERIKA BESS