Aerial view of Reelfoot Lake State Park
January 12, 1941
RG 82, Department of Conservation
The history of Reelfoot Lake is a dramatic one. In the winter of 1811-1812, the 150-mile long New Madrid fault line produced a series of four earthquakes so powerful that the Mississippi River was said to have flowed backward for 10-24 hours. This intensity created Reelfoot Lake, and shocks were felt as far away as Quebec. They remain the largest earthquakes ever recorded in the eastern United States. The lake now encompasses 15,000 acres, with an average depth of 5.5 feet (the mazimum depth is 18 feet).
After the lake was created, all the people who used it considered it public domain. In 1908, however, that perception was proven false when the West Tennessee Land Company bought up the land claims surrounding the lake and asserted that, by owning all of the shoreline, it owned the lake and all of its fishing rights.
The intention of the land company was to drain part of the lake to grow cotton, but the people of Lake County, seeing their lives and livelihoods at stake, formed a vigilante band and used violent means to fight back. They set fire to storehouses, shot at the judge who ruled in the land company's favor, and, on the night of October 19, 1908, committed murder.
Col. William Clinton Tatom & his staff, 1st Tennessee
Archives Picture Collection
Attorneys Colonel Robert Z. Taylor and Captain Quentin Rankin, veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War respectively, worked for and were stakeholders in the West Tennessee Land Company. On October 19 they were forcibly abducted from their beds at the Walnut Log Hotel and taken into the woods. Rankin was hanged and shot, but Taylor managed to get away and jumped into the lake. To prevent his surviving and possibly telling the tale, the Night Riders shot into the lake at least thirty times to kill Taylor. He was presumed dead. Fortunately for Taylor, he was able to hide under a cypress log, and he was found over 24 hours later, wandering and bewildered.
Governor Patterson took firm action by calling in the Tennessee National Guard to keep order in the area. He offered a $10,000 reward — dead or alive — for those responsible for the killing. Almost 100 suspects were detained in camps, where they were poorly treated. Two people died from abuse before their day in court. Over 300 people were indicted, but only 6 were found guilty of murder. These six people were sentenced to death, but the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 1909.
Elmer & Anna Sabin (Verne's parents) taking a
Sabin Photograph Collection
The state acquired the title to the lake itself in 1914, and the move toward creating a state park connected to it occurred in the 1920s. Two of the people influential in creating the state park were Verne Sabin and his wife Nonie Rhoads Sabin, who grew up in Union City. The Sabins opened a photography studio there in 1919; they specialized in people and topics from the Obion and Lake counties area, but they especially focused particular attention on the natural beauty of Reelfoot Lake. In 1923 the Sabins offered a series of three hundred photographs of Reelfoot Lake to the State of Tennessee for $35. State officials declinedto purchase the collection, but realized that the Sabins's offer was an important example of local interest in the preservation of Reelfoot Lake. Two years later, the state purchased some of the property surrounding the lake and established the 280-acre Reelfoot Lake State Park.
In 1989 the Sabins's daughter, Lela Sabin Karweil, donated the Sabin Photograph Collection to the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
At one time found only in Tennessee, the "Reelfoot Boat" is an unusual and highly efficient craft that grew out of necessity. Because the lake is studded with cypress stumps, sportsmen need to see where they are rowing. This prompted the invention of a peculiar oar with a double elbow in the middle that enables a fisherman to pull his oars in the customary fashion but go forward instead of backward.
Bald eagles nesting at
February 16, 2011
Photograph courtesy of
Eagles at Reelfoot Lake
The American Bald Eagle is the symbol of the United States. From 1961 to 1983, the once plentiful birds at Reelfoot Lake State Park had no known nests. The decline was attributed to the insecticide DDT which was banned in 1972. Slowly, the bald eagles began reappearing and are today a major tourist attraction.
Section researched and written by Susan Gordon, Archivist.