Clarksville Historic Homes: The Smith-Trahern Mansion 

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

Standing guard over the Cumberland River is a jewel of Clarksville historical architecture. As a child learning about Clarksville for the first time, I was told about the Smith-Trahern Mansion through the lens of a ghost story during a field trip. The image of a young woman waiting for her husband to return on his riverboat stuck with me, and many Clarksville residents. The Smith-Trahern Mansion’s legacy looms large over the Cumberland for many reasons. 


Clarksville was a hub for tobacco commerce in the 19th century, and like many wealthy citizens, Christopher H. Smith earned his fortune from tobacco. Kentucky and Tennessee’s dark-fired tobacco was internationally popular, and Smith became wealthy exporting the luxury product down the river with his own boat. His business trips would often last weeks or months.  

Smith built his stately mansion for his wife Lucy in 1858. High on the hill, it must have looked impressive towering over tobacco warehouses, with a clear view overlooking the Cumberland River. Smith’s property encompassed several acres that included many outbuildings, only one of which still stands.  

The Smith family owned the mansion until it was sold in 1919. Joseph and Margaret Trahern bought Smith’s mansion in the late 1940s and worked on renovations. The Traherns are a huge reason the house has survived into the 21st century, as the house had long since fallen into disrepair. The building had been turned into apartments by previous owners and the historical interest in the house was waning. Joseph and Margaret brought the house back to life. In 1988, the Smith-Trahern Mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

Photos from the National Register of Historic Places report, 1988


The mansion is a mixture of the Greek Revival and Italianate designs that were very popular in the United States right before the Civil War. Italianate houses resemble a villa found in the Italian countryside: the center and front of the house has a tower-like appearance, bracketing under the roof, and high arched windows. The Greek Revival style uses columns and a sturdy symmetrical design. All these features can be found at Smith-Trahern Mansion. The combination of these styles lends a sense of stature and importance to the home.  

It’s widely repeated that Adolphus Heiman designed the Smith-Trahern Mansion. Heiman was a German immigrant, architect and engineer who ended up fighting in two American wars: the Mexican-American War in the 1840s and the Civil War in the 1860s. In between fighting wars, Heiman designed mansions, public buildings and bridges. Notably, Nashville’s Belmont Mansion is an example of Heiman’s work. He gained a following as “Nashville’s architect” during his active years, and for his Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Italianate designs. Apparently, no concrete evidence exists that pins him to the Smith-Trahern Mansion – but it’s not a leap to assume he did design Smith’s home, as it was built during Heiman’s active years, resembles his other designs and Christopher H. Smith was certainly wealthy enough to afford him.  

Smith-Trahern Mansion
Jackie Langford, 1996
Oil on canvas


Everyone loves a good ghost story, and the long-time residents of Clarksville are no exception.  In the years before and after the Traherns owned the house, the upstairs rooms of the mansion were used as apartments. The people who rented those apartments have been known to discuss odd happenings, like items being moved upon leaving a room and found in a different place upon returning 

The idea that the Smith-Trahern Mansion could be haunted comes from the story about how Christopher H. Smith died. During one of Smith’s long business trips on the river, he contracted yellow fever and died while in New Orleans. Smith’s body was sent back to Clarksville, but his boat exploded in transit. His body sank to the bottom of the Mississippi, never making it back home. Lucy Smith never saw her husband again, though people say she continued to go out to the house’s widow walk every day to watch for her husband, even after she was told of his death.  

Lucy Smith passed away in 1909, but her grief may not have died with her. People insist they’ve seen Lucy out on the widow walk, to this day still watching and hoping for her husband’s return.  

Today, the house is still treasured for its historical beauty. For nearly four decades, the house has been a prime wedding destination, a location for classes, workshops and historical tours. For years, it has hosted an open house around the holidays when a multitude of elaborately decorated Christmas trees can be enjoyed by the public. The house is also a monument to a by-gone era during Clarksville’s golden years as the hub of the agricultural and tobacco industries.  

The City of Clarksville owns the Smith-Trahern Mansion today. The 165-year-old house is undergoing another round of much-needed renovations and is currently closed to the public. No date is set as to when this house will be available to tour again, but the expectation is Clarksville’s favorite mansion will be opened again before long. 


Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two children. 

Back to Blog