The Disappointed Odyssey of the S.S. Oliver King

by Jack Neely

For the next few years, people will argue about whether the new century officially begins in 2000 or 2001. The computer chaos promised when millions of circuits switch from 99 to 00 may settle the issue for us moderns, but it was an issue Knoxvillians argued about in 1899.

Hosting a formal "20th Century Day," the educated ladies of the Ossoli Circle threw down their gauntlet, declaring the 20th century did properly begin on Jan. 1, 1900. However, the editors of both the Journal and the Sentinel steadfastly insisted the 20th Century wouldn't be here until 1901. "Those who insist that today is the beginning of a new century can have it that way if they want to," allowed the Journal. "But they will find themselves out of line."

Still, the Sentinel used the occasion to speculate about the wonders of the century to come. "The 20th century will probably witness the end of war. It will see all the barbarous races of the world civilized...It may see all current languages reduced to two—Russian and English... Every village in the world will be in instantaneous telephonic communication with every other. The powers of the wind, the sun, and the sea will be chained, so that the air will no longer be fouled with smoke...The men of the 20th century that fair relation between services and earnings for which the transitional 19th century has been vainly striving..."

There was a lot of vain striving in those last days of 1899. With sub-freezing weather for days, the Pigeon River froze over, stranding the Knoxville riverboat Flora Swan. Even the Tennessee was icing over at its shallower spots, especially the half-mile strip along the south bank, downriver from the new Gay Street Bridge. It happened so often that the smart downtown hardware merchants kept a supply of ice skates on hand. At that patch alone, someone counted 350 skaters. "The white ice was dotted with men and boys in so many miller bugs in a millpond," reported the Journal. "Here and there were some who...whirled, twisted, and flung their legs and bodies about, leaving behind them markings as odd as Egyptian hieroglyphics..."

A club of local sportsmen might have done well to study those hieroglyphics. Apparently confident of the liquid state of the Tennessee one Friday evening, these men, "a gang of the gambling fraternity," commandeered the well-known steamboat Oliver King at the Market Street wharf. They "slipped aboard with coops of poultry"—fancy gamecocks, to be specific. These sportsmen were taking their pets on a voyage to a quiet arena several miles downriver, to an island in the river near the Loudon county line, where there was a cave: "an ideal place for such affairs."

There in the cave, on this secluded island, they'd stage a championship cockfight, a big-money entertainment illegal in Knoxville. They had every good intention of returning the riverboat to its wharf before dawn after their subterranean bird-bludgeoning tournament.

Five miles down the river that night, our sportsmen may have been arguing about what century it would soon be when, in the vicinity of Lyons Bend, the Oliver King bottomed out on a sandbar. Ice floes gathered around the ship, and despite the amateur rivermen's efforts, the King held fast. They watched the surface of the river freeze around them.

"There they struck," wrote the Journal's laconic reporter after it was all over, "and there they were stuck...There was dire distress with no lighthouse or rescue station in sight." In those days, few lived along the river in West Knox County. No one could hear them scream.

"The steamboat sounded a weird note of distress," reported the Journal, "but the only answer was a mocking echo from the hills." They were still there when "the gamecocks aboard announced the dawn of day."

The mariners settled in for the weekend. "Saturday was an uneventful day, as the logbook of the vessel will show," wrote the mercilessly wry Journal correspondent. "Sunday dawned and wore on. The passengers aboard had by this time reached a famishing stage and a consultation was held as to whether the cork life-preservers should be eaten..." Apparently the sportsmen's well-bred pets weren't on the table.

Of all the Knoxville scenes of that colorful era, this one is my favorite: sportsmen contemplating cork rings aboard a steamboat loaded with crates of angry chickens in a half-frozen river. I wish Currier and Ives had been around to print one last romantic river lithograph: A Winter's Day Aboard the Oliver King.

Sunday the temperature was down to 9 degrees. But sometime that afternoon, a daredevil's yawl appeared on the water's surface, plowed through the ice, and came to the sportsmen's aid. Only he didn't have room in his boat for any chickens.

The weekend pirates abandoned ship and their colorful gamecocks and disembarked on the north shore, apparently along Lyons Bend—where some alarmed neighbors mistook them for "escaped inmates of the insane asylum." From a house they telephoned for horse-drawn cabs to come pick them up.

These daring mariners apparently tried to keep their river odyssey quiet, but failed. Frustrated reporters apologized that their story, as it stands, is all "that could be gathered from the participants, who were too disgusted to tell all particulars."

The night of their return, Knoxville celebrated that odd-looking new year, 1900—whatever century it might be. Bell-ringers showed up at nearly every church that had a bell tower. At 12:00, according to the Journal account, "their musical clangor sounded with strange distinctiveness at that still hour. If it stirred the slumber of the sleeping city, it must have set it to pleasant dreaming."