Dreams dispersed in the water

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Gay Street Bridge, 1880s. Source: McClung Historical Collection


“Beyond in the dark the river flows in a sluggard ooze toward southern seas…. afreight  with the past, dreams dispersed in the water someway, nothing ever lost.” — Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

The Tennessee River doesn’t loom large in the daily lives of most contemporary Knoxville residents, but two centuries ago it was literally why there was a city here in the first place. 

In fact, it’s impossible to discuss Knoxville’s history for long without the river cropping up in one way or another. In the earliest days of the community’s existence, settlers drew water from and washed in the creeks that fed the Tennessee; the river itself carried boats laden with goods hundreds of miles before ending up in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Since then, the city’s relationship with the river has evolved steadily. It was an economic lifeline for generations, but railroads and automobiles eventually cornered the market when it came to shipping both cargo and passengers. Today, it’s a safe bet that when most people think of the “Riverfront” they’re thinking of restaurants or maybe a fireworks display; for the lucky few who can afford to belong to the yacht club, they’re maybe thinking about Labor Day weekends spent sailing with the Vol Navy.

 In today’s edition of Hard Knox Histories, local historian and journalist Jack Neely discusses the ebbs and flows of Knoxville’s connection to the river with HKW’s editor, J.J. Stambaugh.

Tennessee River with boat traffic, undated. Source: Knoxville History Project

J.J.: When the first settlers arrived at the site that would be Knoxville, what role did geography — especially the Tennessee River — play in their decision to settle here? How important was the river commercially in the early days? The river, of course, was fed by numerous tributaries and creeks. How important were relatively small waterways like First Creek to the early city’s growth?

JACK: The river was elemental. It was hard to start a city without one. It was transportation, it was water for drinking and cooling, it was waste disposal. And, of course, the Tennessee reached from here into Cherokee territory, beyond into Alabama, then through West Tennessee into Kentucky, and all the way to the Ohio and the Mississippi.

 When it came to locating a city, First Creek was probably as important as the Tennessee because it provided mill power. There were several mills up and down First Creek, as well as Second Creek. The two downtown creeks were the eastern and western boundaries of the city for its first 70 years or so.

The river was extremely important commercially, even though it was a mostly one-way thing. In the early days, when Knoxville was a territorial and state capital, there was a demand for liquor here, and folks apparently got so good at producing cheap whisky and brandy that they loaded flatboats with it and floated them downriver, all the way to New Orleans, where it could be sold for several times the cost. I love the fact that riverboat crewmen would bust up their rafts and sell them for hardwood in a city where there wasn’t much of it. A lot of the wooden buildings in the French Quarter, especially in the interiors, show traces of the rope holes and grooves characteristic of flatboats. 

Also, Knoxville received goods from upstream, Kingsport and Dandridge, on the Holston and French Broad. 

J.J.: As steamboats began to ply the nation’s rivers in the 19th century, how was Knoxville impacted?

JACK: It was a mostly one-way trip until 1828, when the first steamboat, known as the Atlas, made it past the shoals to Knoxville to collect a cash prize. Steamboat navigation after that was limited, depending on the time of year, but it became important. A particular kind of steamboat, a sternwheeler that could negotiate shallow water better than most Mississippi-style ships, became known at the Tennessee River Steamboat.   

Knoxville was part of America’s network of steamboat ports. Due to the limitations of the river, however — the fact that it sometimes got shallow and had multiple hazards downstream — going all the way downstream on the Tennessee River to Alabama and beyond was pretty daring. But many people did use it. Some of the immigration to Knoxville in the 1840s and ’50s was via riverboat. Many of the Swiss, for example, came overland from ports like Charleston to Chattanooga and then took the riverboat to Knoxville. 

Annabell steamboat, circa 1910. Source: McClung Historical Collection

It became much less critical after 1855, when we had railroads to convey both people and heavy goods, but river transportation remained a significant factor in Knoxville’s economy. The river changed gradually, as more freight went to trains, and later 18-wheel trucks, though some heavy, bulky things like asphalt and sand are still more easily transported by river barge. There’s still a port at Forks of the River, Burkhart’s Wharf — or, at least, that’s what it used to be called.

J.J.: Numerous sources discuss the “Riverfront” as though it were a readily discernible neighborhood. What would it have looked like, sounded like, smelled like as the Age of Steam peaked and then declined? Port districts — whether they are built next to a freshwater or saltwater body of water— tend to have the reputation of being vice-ridden, crime-filled neighborhoods. Was that the case here? If so, what was it like? How bad was it?

JACK: The riverfront was a sometimes busy but never pretty place. 

Because the river flooded a lot, Knoxville didn’t spend much on architecture down there, building mainly cheap warehouses that might be washed away. There were two wharves, one at Central Street, and one at Prince Street, which is analogous to Market Street today. It was near what’s now Calhoun’s. The Central Street Wharf was considered more industrial, the Prince Street Wharf was where passengers would go to board an excursion boat. After the Civil War, there were probably more excursion trips, picnics, and even dancing aboard then practical transportation for people. 

There’s a great quote from a guy remembering the departure of a steamboat that’s quoted oin one of the markers down by the riverfront (just east of Calhoun’s, I think), in which he describes the singing river men. 

Tennessee River wharf scene from a postcard. Source: Knoxville History Project

A good many river men made modest livings as fishermen. Catfish was probably the most prized. That lifestyle is partly described in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree. They sold fish at both Market Square and the smaller markets down on the Central Bowery. 

There were shantytowns by the river. TVA described them in a 1940 study, noting that there were four distinct shantytowns, each with its own name and personality, on both sides of the river in the downtown area. One of them was all African American. 

The idea of the “houseboat” got fancier after World War II and the TVA lakes, but if you lived on a houseboat before 1940 or so, it was probably a makeshift thing of scrap wood and oil drums, and you were probably unable to afford anything else. As far as I can tell, McCarthy’s description of these rough neighborhoods, on the decline during the setting of Suttree in 1951, are pretty accurate. 

J.J.: The river has been used for recreation of one sort or another for a long time. What were some of the more popular pastimes, attractions, and events over the years? Boomsday was probably the most recent major festival, but surely it had its precursors.

JACK: Knoxville feared the river for many years. It was feared because it flooded, and also because it tended to attract heavy industry, from the old gas works to the modern-day asphalt plants.  It was often full of trash and dead animals like drowned cows as well as raw sewage, especially when it flooded frequently. 

Bridge over Tennessee River in downtown Knoxville, 1898. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

Sewage wasn’t very well treated until the 1950s. Before the 20th century, I assume there just wasn’t that much of it, because people did enjoy swimming and boating in the river, especially in the 1870s and 1880s. 

One surprise is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, parts of the river often froze, especially a large shallow section on the south side of the Gay Street bridge. It froze so commonly that downtown hardware stores stocked ice skates. Sometimes hundreds of people would go over there and skate. 

Another recreational use of the river was the infamous cable car, which ran from the Third Creek area up to the top of the bluffs on the south side, ca. 1893-94. It was hailed by Scientific American, but it shut down after a fatal accident in 1894 that may have been caused by sabotage. 

Knoxville aerial Cable Railway, Scientific American, March 17, 1894 Source: McClung Historical Collection

But for the most part, in the early and middle part of the 20th century, we avoided the river when we could. 

There have been a few efforts to try to address the river as an asset, one of the best of which was proposed in the late 1920s when the City Planning Commission (long-ago forerunner of today’s Metropolitan Planning Commission) proposed a city plan that included tiers of terraced gardens going down to the riverfront between Gay and Walnut. 

One river attraction that did work was one century ago, in 1921: Shields-Watkins Field. I don’t know whether they pictured anything like the Vol Navy, but it turned out to be an interesting phenomenon — a popular college football venue so close to a major river. 

In the 1930s, there was a vogue about speedboat racing, and there were several races in the downtown part of the river. 

1886 map of Knoxville. Source: Library of Congress

J.J.: Eventually, the Riverfront became what I recall from my youth — a mostly empty strip of unattractive land by the water. Eventually, though, it began to see development, primarily restaurants, and of course it’s a fairly bustling place nowadays. Can you discuss its decline and subsequent reinvention as a recreational hotspot?

JACK: TVA changed it all with its dam system, especially in the early 1940s when Fort Loudon, Douglas, and Cherokee dams were built. The river more or less stopped flooding. It was safer, it flooded less, but it was still pretty stinky. And people had already chosen to turn their backs on it, except as a place to drive a car swiftly. Neyland Drive was finished in the early ’50s. It’s a pleasant drive, though much of it has heavy industry on one side and the sewage treatment plant on the other. 

Many people started calling it Fort Loudoun Lake at that time, and our daily newspaper developed a rather strict style of always calling it that — even though it’s not very lake-like in the downtown part. 

My theory is that, in the 1940s, Lake Tahoe (in California) was new and swingin’ and people thought it sounded more sophisticated to live on a lake. River pilots have told me it has a very strong current in the downtown and UT area, and that Looney’s Bend at Sequoyah Hills is one of the most treacherous turns in the river system. One pilot I interviewed was actually offended to hear that Knoxville called it “the lake.” It’s not lake water until you get down to Pellissippi Parkway area, he said.  I think it’s weird to name something so elemental to downtown Knoxville after a dam that’s many river miles away. And lake or not, it’s still the Tennessee River. 

View of River Bridge, postcard 1900. Source: Knoxville History Project

The city built something called Bicentennial Park by the river in 1976. Very modest little riverfront park, and I’m not sure it was a success as an attraction, but a few other things followed that. The first modern-era excursion riverboats started working out of that area not long after that, and Calhoun’s was originally a restaurant called Cajun’s Wharf, which opened in the 1970s, but was just there by itself for a while, with only muddy banks on either side. 

The big Volunteer Landing complex was built in the 1990s, around Calhoun’s, and I was happy to be part of the historical interpretation that went into that. 

Editors note: That wraps up today’s Hard Knox Histories, a bi-weekly collaboration between the Knoxville History Project and Hard Knox Wire. Jack Neely will be back on August 27 with another installment.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com

Jack Neely can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com

Published on August 13, 2021