Ask Doc Knox:

Knoxville's Top 10 Historic Sites

Dear Doctor Knox:

What are the 10 most interesting historic sites within 10 miles of downtown Knoxville?
Lex Paul McCarty

Dear Mr. McCarty:

An excellent question, and by that I mean one that's very difficult to answer. My top 10 is more than 100 items long, which is mathematically unfortunate. And I admit my answer tomorrow might be slightly different. But for today:

1. Market Square, as a whole; and, if any one building, the Kern Building. Most of the historic homes we celebrate were built and occupied by wealthy antebellum native-born white protestants, but Market Square offers the broadest and most inclusive picture of almost all aspects of our history. It played a major role in commerce, in agriculture, in journalism (the inventor of the New York Times, Adolph Ochs, began his career on the Square), the development of popular music (spawning the careers of Roy Acuff and many others), political development (Knoxville's City Hall was on the Square during the city's fastest-growing decades).

2. Blount Mansion. It's the only designated National Landmark in Knoxville, which we think means it's the only building we can't tear down under any circumstances--though the threat of tearing it down for a parking lot in 1925 prompted the beginning of Knoxville's preservationist movement.  Mansion may seem an overstatement for a house that's not as big as most houses in Farragut, but it was the home for the final eight years of the life of a signer of the U.S. Constitution, the territorial governor of the region that became Tennessee, and the first U.S. Senator to be charged with treason, over a bizarre and complicated international plot involving a prospective British invasion of Spanish Louisiana. It's the oldest frame house west of the Appalachian mountains; in fact, if you want to twist visitors' perspective of Appalachian history, remind them that it's a few decades older than the oldest log cabin in Cades Cove. And it gets extra points for its post-Blount era; it was later home to a Knoxville mayor, an early childhood home of influential photographer Jim Thompson, and during the most dangerous part of the Civil War, a refuge for Confederate spy Belle Boyd. 

3. Old Gray Cemetery (on Broadway, just north of downtown). Founded in 1850, this Victorian graveyard belies the supposed homogeneity of the area: here you see German names, French names, Italian names, some stones even carved in Greek. It's so lovely you can almost envy all these folks who get to spend so much time here. Among the people buried at Old Gray are Parson Brownlow, probably the most hated Unionist in the South; McGhee Tyson, the ill-fated World War I airman for whom the airport is named; Ebenezer Alexander, the scholar-diplomat who helped found the Olympic movement in Athens in 1896; Catherine Wiley, the impressionist artist; Lee "Bum" McClung, the Yalie who was one of football's first national stars, not to mention U.S. Treasurer; and all three people who shot each other to death in the Mabry-O'Conner gunfight of 1882. The place is not huge, but it's infinite: Every visit is guaranteed to turn up something you'd never noticed before.  

4. Chilhowee Park, on Magnolia. Established as a community park soon after the Civil War, in 1890 this refuge from the smoky industrial city became the destination of Knoxville's first electric streetcar. It hosted the large Appalachian Expositions of 1910 and 1911, which were attended by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and, most significantly, the National Conservation Exposition of 1913, which was attended by William Jennings Bryan, Booker T. Washington, and Gifford Pinchot, one of its chief advisors. Touted as the first conservation exposition in the history of mankind, it drew more than one million visitors, and is part of the back story of the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's still a great place for big events like Kuumba and the Tennessee Valley Fair, but all that remains of that early heroic era is the old gazebo in the middle. 

5. Fountain City Lake / Park: the heart-shaped lake, a.k.a. Duck Pond, was created for the old Fountainhead Hotel, a Victorian mecca for clean living in the days when the city was smoky and sinful; it was reached by a small train, the Dummy Line, which left downtown Knoxville several times a day. The park became a major gathering place for Civil War veterans and Fourth of July picnics, as well as political and reformist speakers; Socialist Eugene V. Debs spoke to a large and enthusiastic crowd here in the early 20th century. The hotel burned down decades ago. Fountain City is named for the fact that First Creek springs from a hillside that's preserved in the park itself. 

6. Fort Dickerson: Plans are to combine it via a long greenway with smaller forts Stanley and Higley, but Fort Dickerson, the best-preserved earthworks in the Knoxville area, part of the ring of hastily built Union fortifications, designed by Capt. Orlando Poe, it was a big part of why General Sherman declared Knoxville to be the best-fortified city he'd ever seen.  

7. Historic houses, especially Ramsey House, an unusual 1790s house built of stone by the dynamically influential family who lived there; the John Williams house, home of soldier,  senator and ambassador to Guatemala and Jackson opponent who is also credited by some as the originator of the Tennessee Volunteers nickname (on Dandridge Ave.); Bleak House, the 1850s house which became General Longstreet's headquarters during the siege which turned out so badly he tried to resign his commission; and the Mabry Hazen house, the 1850s manse established by Market Square co-founder Joseph Mabry, which tells its family's gothically tragic story (The three men who died in downtown gunfights might not be quite as poignant as the story of its last resident, Miss Evelyn Hazen.) Just to name four. 

8. First Presbyterian Church graveyard on State Street is tiny, but is the final resting place of Knoxville founder James White, who donated this former turnip patch in the 1790s to be a graveyard; the aforementioned William Blount and his wife Mary Grainger Blount (for whom both Maryville and Grainger County are named); Samuel Carrick, the founder of UT; and three U.S. Senators, including Hugh Lawson White, onetime president pro tem of the Senate, and Jackson adversary who ran a credible if rather strange campaign for the presidency in 1836. It gets extra points because New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs claimed he learned the journalism business as a result of his fear of this graveyard at midnight. 

9. Cal Johnson building on State Street, an 1890s clothing factory, neglected and not much to look at; but how many big brick buildings can anybody name that were built by a man raised to be a slave? Cal Johnson's astonishing career, from slave to wealthy philanthropist, makes Horatio Alger's capitalist heroes look like slackers. 

10. UT's Hill. It's a shame the university hasn't saved any more buildings than it has--the university flaunts its 1794 founding date, but has no structures that have been there since the Civil War. The Hill, which has been central to campus since 1828, and geographically hard to ignore, counts as a site. Bonus points for the fact that it began its life in Knoxville's cultural consciousness, in the 1790s, as a graveyard. 

We hope this assists you in your pilgrimages.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Comments » 1

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Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis.