The Disappointed Odyssey of the S.S. Oliver
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 twoRussian 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 will...secure 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 black...like
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
The weekend pirates abandoned ship and their colorful gamecocks and disembarked
on the north shore, apparently along Lyons Bendwhere 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,
1900whatever 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."