Dear Doc Knox:
I saw your ad in a recent issue of Metro Pulse. I live in the 4th and Gill
neighborhood and work downtown at the Mast General Store. My favorite route
to Gay Street is through Emory Place and then down Williams Street to Depot
Street. For many years it puzzled me why someone would build a train station
(Southern Railroad) in a barren area. There is not much to speak of between
Depot and Fifth Avenue. Nor are there all that many residential houses
within walking distance of the station.
Then I discovered the Calvin McClung Historic Photographs of Knoxville
online. The photo that intrigues me most so far is the Gay Street viaduct
shot which may have been taken from a dirigible or from the window of a tall
building such as the Sterchi Building. The photo reveals numerous buildings
on Depot Street across from the train station and in the neighborhood behind
Depot Street all the way back to Emory Place.
My question is, do you know of any photographs that may show more detail of
the buildings (mostly hotels) on Depot Street and Williams Street? I have
found several photographs of the Atkin Hotel that is now the big parking lot
called "Regas Square."
I want to draw the hotels and buildings that were demolished for an art
project in the future. Thank you for your assistance.
You mailed us a photocopy of a detail zoom of a Thompson Bros. photo, taken
My Dear Mr. Campbell:
A very interesting picture, and I congratulate you on an intriguing art
from the public library's Calvin M. McClung Historical Collecion website,
entitled "View north from Gay Street viaduct." The photo appears to have
been taken in the 1920s--we suspect around 1925, when the Sterchi Building
was built, offering never-before-seen vistas of this part of town.
To view the photograph in question, dial up the following secret password: Thompson!
To answer your question about whether we know of good photographs or other
images of that long-gone neighborhood, the answer is a regretful no. Mr.
Neely's latest collection, Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City--which is
a harrowing read, I might add--includes a photo on p. 42, to illustrate the
general scene of the 1897 Battle of Depot Street. In the blurry background
we can make out some of the area you describe, but your photo is much
better, showing detail of boarding houses (one called, unoriginally, the
"Maxwell House"), cafes (one called the Dew Drop), hotels, the New York Loan
Office, and billboards for Goodyear tires and Block's Aristocratic Candies.
Most of these buildings no longer exist.
It's likely you could find shots or drawings of the more successful
businesses, especially hotels, in the area, through meticulous research of
business advertisements, etc. The assistants at McClung can show you how to
do that. They'll also be happy to sell you a print of this very photograph,
one suitable for framing.
The 1886 Beck & Pauli bird's eye view drawing, which you see reproduced in
various places around town (it's also on the web) shows the same area about
40 years before your photo. That area north of Depot was pretty densely
developed even then, but most of the structures were two-story houses, not
urban buildings like those in your photo. The difference brings out the
problem of which particular past we want to depict when we depict the past.
Some of our pasts are quite different from others, and you'll need to choose
one and stick to it.
If you're serious, you can review the schematic drawings of each building as
they appear in the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which charted the area
pretty thoroughly from about 1880 to 1940. From it you can at least learn
how big the buildings are, and how close together.
By the way, as you seem to have gathered, your observations about the oddity
of putting a train station in a bleak part of town sort of puts the caboose
before the engine. But it does say a lot about what's happened to that
benighted neighborhood in the last 60 years.
The old Southern train station visible in your photo, and still there today,
was built in 1901 on the site of Knoxville's first train station. It was
built there, north of what was then the business district, in 1855 because
it was on flat ground, though it was a few fathoms deeper than the rest of
the business district. Old Knoxville had been a hilltop city since
Indian-fearing, flood-dreading days, and most of downtown Knoxville still is
on a bluff, of course, perhaps disguised today by its networks of concrete
Municipal altitude was an asset in the 1790s, but the passenger-train era
brought new dilemmas for hill towns. It would have been expensive to build
railroad bridges on graded trestles to reach up to the business district,
and down again. The railroads were content to keep their tracks and depots
on the bottom and wait for the city to embrace it down there. Which
Knoxville in fact did, rather promptly. By the 1860s, there were hotels in
the immediate neighborhood, serving the train-passenger crowd, and they
proliferated in years to come. The wholesale houses of Jackson Avenue made
the most of freightyard frontage, too, as did, eventually, the White Lily
Flour mill, on the other side of the tracks. By 1900 or so, it was a very
dense and busy part of town, and there was unbroken urban development from
the old part of Knoxville, the part we still consider downtown, north to
Broadway and Central, and beyond.
It stayed that way until the 1950s, when the city, with an assist from the
federal government, built the highway that soon became I-40, and obliterated
several city blocks to do it.
The commercial section north of the highway never quite recovered, and is no
longer popularly considered to be part of downtown. In this way, I-40
effectively reduced the size of downtown Knoxville by about one fourth. It
seemed like a good idea at the time.
Your knowledgeable friend,
Z. Heraclitus Knox, Pl.P, St.D