It takes special individuals to have a vision and make that vision a reality. Robert “Bob” and Elaine Russell were those individuals. That vision was the construction of a River Walk along an abandoned stretch of old Highway 73 in Townsend. The original Highway 73, located on the banks of the Little River, was abandoned in the early 1940s in favor of the new Highway 73 on higher ground, what is now known as the Lamar Alexander Parkway (US 321).
Bob had served as Townsend mayor from 1998-2000 and understood how to work effectively with local and state government. He and Elaine, both gardeners, proposed the trail along the river, and Bob led the efforts for the initial creation of the Townsend River Walk. Bob and Elaine worked with Tennessee Department of Transportation and the City of Townsend to obtain funding and initial construction help. At the time they were both members of the Tuckaleechee Garden Club, caretakers of the TRWA, and were in the Inaugural Blount County Master Gardner Class in 2006.
Our club was saddened to learn of Bob’s passing late in 2022 (See Obituary) and wanted to memorialize his leadership in establishing the TRWA, as well as honor his wife Elaine for her efforts. TRWA Chair Mark Seder designed a memorial garden overlooking the Little River and the River Walk. The landscape design compliments the natural features and plants of the TRWA while also introducing a walkway and native azalea garden in addition to the peaceful overlook for a bench.
The garden design features Gregory Bald flame azaleas, Rhododendron calendulaceum, also known as native azaleas. These natives were originally discovered when naturalist William Bartram explored this area in 1776, and the plants put on a spectacular show of blooms of orange, pink, white, and red in June on Gregory Bald, high up the mountain overlooking Cades Cove in what is today Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Legend has it that the Gregory bald azaleas were so stunning to botanist Harlan P. Kesley when he visited the area in 1924, he recommended making the area a national park, in part due to their beauty. The Tuckaleechee Garden Club honors Bob and Elaine Russell’s contributions to establishing the TRWA with the Gregory Bald native azalea serving as a symbol of their enduring vision and commitment.
Tuckaleechee Garden Club broke ground for the Bob & Elaine Russell Gregory Bald Azalea Garden in late February 2023. Club members spent over 30 combined hours on the initial phase. The first step was preparing the garden area by removing undesirable nonnatives such as privet and honeysuckle. Next, a stacked stone support wall was added for the bench area, and the pathway was graded to connect the garden to the River Walk. Landscape fabric was installed for weed prevention and 12 yards of oak hardwood mulch raked into place. Finally, 10 Gregory Bald native azaleas were installed. The garden is in the process of being completed with finishing the stone on the pathway, the installation of the park bench and a plaque honoring the contributions of Bob and Elaine Russell for their visionary leadership creating the Townsend River Walk & Arboretum.
Robert "Bob" & Elaine Russell Garden Dedication - The Daily Times
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