Bays Mountain Park celebrates 50 years

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES. In this file photo, a group of sixth grade students participates in the obstacle course at Bays Mountain Park. The park celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Michael Fanning

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES. In this file photo, a group of sixth grade students participates in the obstacle course at Bays Mountain Park. The park celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Kingsport’s Bays Mountain Park first opened on May 24, 1971, making 2021 its 50th anniversary. The park is celebrating this milestone with a variety of activities for its visitors.

Bays Mountain wasn’t always a park.  It started out as a place for people to live and for Kingsport to profit from timber.  J. Fred Johnson, one of Kingsport’s founders, started to buy land in 1907 to create a lake that could be used as Kingsport’s water source.

In 1914, Johnson had around 1,200 acres of land, and sold it to Kingsport Waterworks Corporation. From 1944 to 1964, the mountain was used for several different things such as hiking, fishing and hunting.

That’s when Kingsport’s mayor of 1965, Hugh Rule, appointed a committee to look at ways that could potentially turn the mountain into a park.

“We’ve grown from serving not just the Kingsport area over the past 50 years,” Bays Mountain Park’s manager, Rob Cole, said. “In fact, at various points we have served up to 36 surrounding counties, and of course that includes counties that are found in Tennessee first and foremost.”

The establishment of Bays Mountain Park’s Nature Center and Planetarium began in 1970 and was assisted by Eastman Chemical Company.  The park was finally opened on May 24, 1971.

Since then, more animal exhibits were added such as, the deer habitat, the otter habitat, the Herpetarium with snakes and amphibians and in 1992, and the gray wolves exhibit.

These exhibits have proven particularly popular with visitors.

“I like watching the wolves eat,” Madi Hatfield, a sixth grade student, said.

The Herpetarium has also been a big hit with visitors.

“I’m just really interested in reptiles and amphibians,” Raven Olson, a seventh grade science teacher, said.

Even the planetarium has become a popular exhibit.

“[I love to go] where you look at stars and stuff,” seventh grade student Kiaya Hensley said.

Many Kingsport residents have made lasting memories at Bays Mountain Park.

“My favorite part used to be the otter exhibit, but all the otters died,” Pearce Farr, a seventh grade student, said. “My favorite memory is taking my dog there for the first time.”

Many consider the park the perfect place for family fun.

“[I remember] my mom screaming after telling her there was a snake right near her,” Ben Grady, a seventh grader, said.

Bays Mountain also allows middle school students to volunteer at the park.

“Although our volunteer opportunities are restricted to those who are largely 16 years of age, there are opportunities where even those below that age can participate,” Cole said. “For example, we occasionally have scout groups, church groups, youth groups, civic organizations and clubs that come up and bring groups, including below the middle school age, to help us with tasks such as clearing brush. I think middle schoolers can certainly […] seek ways, opportunities, to get involved.”

The park has had a successful 50 years, but there is hope that it will have an even bigger impact in the future.

“For the future, [I hope] that we are able to continue having the same impact for the next 50 years that those who were here before had over the past 50 years,” Cole said. “We talk a lot about climate change in today’s society, but very few understand what that means and how to responsibly be a player in helping to value our climate in our own backyard. What can we do at home, protecting green space and guarding against irresponsible development here at the park?”

Even after 50 years, visitors still enjoy visiting the park.

“I like it because it’s relaxing,” Hatfield said. “I love being around nature and the outside. I think it’s a good experience.”