An unauthorized tour of one unmarked dogwood trail

by Jack Neely

It's dogwood time, and there are driving trails marked all over town. Once again, my favorite dogwood trail didn't make the official route list.

It runs all the way from eastern Bearden to UT. It's not the most blossomy trail in town, and you can't drive on it; I understand that's a big problem for some tourists. But you can walk it or jog it or skate it or bike it. Some call it the Third Creek Bike Trail, in fact, and you're supposed to pronounce it with a shiver. Local reporters, none of whom I've actually seen down there, have made it sound plenty sinister in recent years. I've been riding the trail alone, winter and summer, more days than not since 1978. I've never witnessed anything illegal, immoral, or even very annoying. There's no question some awful things have happened down there. The perpetrators of the worst crimes are in prison.

Driving the parallel stretch of Kingston Pike, on the other hand, I've nearly been killed several times, by strangers who aren't in prison but should be. If you do feel vulnerable on this bike trail, I'd recommend taking a friend—which is the best way to see a dogwood trail anyway, right?

It starts in the corner of a parking lot behind the Golf Range Apartments on Sutherland, named for the course that used to be an open field—which was also, incidentally, Knoxville's original airport, homebase for local barnstormers in 1927. You follow the asphalt path through the woods along a wet-weather creek, and it doesn't take you long to disbelieve you're between traffic-choked Kingston Pike and post-industrial Sutherland Avenue. On your left as you cross Tobler is West High School, where lots of interesting people, among them the Everly Brothers and my mother, studied geometry and English. You join the main stream of Third Creek at a wooden footbridge and then pass under an early 20th-century arched-masonry railroad trestle. Then you're back in the woods, wilder even than they were 135 years ago, when veterans of Gettysburg and Chickamauga crept eastward along this creek, under fire and firing back, advancing on a city they would never reach. You cross back across Third Creek by an old mill house. Apparently rebuilt as a storage shed sometime in the last half-century, the mill itself could be 50 years old or 150, its concrete dam broken, its steel turbine corroded and half-buried in the muddy bank. A couple of hills farther and you're on short, quiet Painter Road; on the ridge to your right is where young General Sanders fell wounded as the Union defense crumbled in stages before Longstreet's advance.

You cross to Tyson Park, named by philanthropist Bettie Tyson in honor of her son McGhee, the navy pilot who went down in the North Sea in 1918. She donated this family land in 1929 with the stipulation that Knoxville's airport should also bear her only son's name forever. Today it's among the city's best-used parks, with tennis courts, softball fields, an elaborate playground, picnic tables, and a trail that winds through it and crosses Third Creek again by a wooden bridge where medieval warriors of the Society for Creative Anachronism clash on Sundays. You follow the trail beneath the Kingston Pike traffic and suddenly you're in a big playing field called Fulton Bottoms where you're as likely to see a game of rugby as soccer. It's named, of course, after Weston Fulton, the genius who launched Knoxville's modern high-tech industry in 1906 when he invented an odd-looking electrical device he named the Sylphon after a Greek mythological sprite. Sylphons made all manner of things possible, from the automobile thermostat to the anti-submarine depth charge. Then you're right across the creek from Fulton's old factory, now British-owned Siebe Robertshaw, not built to be looked at but interesting nonetheless, a maze of prewar industrial buildings linked together that it must take hirees months to learn.

Up to your right is UT's ag campus. If you climb up the grassy hill and wander around you'll find the best-preserved prehistoric ruin in the metro area, an Indian mound built by a people who were ancient and mysterious even to the Cherokees who knew them only by these monuments left near the river.

Then back on the trail the sun shines green through the trees and you're alongside what seems like a broad, serene country brook overhung with maples and sycamores, a scene out of an old Salem commercial. In some parts of the country they'd call this a river. Tall, silent herons fish alongside the piling remains of an old dock built long ago for some forgotten purpose. Those Confederates did cross Third Creek, and dug in on the far bank, and got no closer.

When you hit Neyland Drive, alongside UT's well-tended experimental gardens, you're at the now-invisible site of the invention that dazzled the nation in 1894 when it was written up in Scientific American—the suspended cable car that climbed across the river and to the top of the southern bluffs until the Sunday afternoon when its pulling cable broke and the car slid backwards down its support cable and killed a lawyer.

Here you can turn left and cloverleaf beneath Neyland Drive to the mouth of Third Creek, where you can usually find a few bold fishermen angling in the broad mouth where a large old brick chimney lies half-submerged, unexplained. Follow the same trail and you'll find yourself all the way downtown at Volunteer Landing, crossing Second and even First Creeks, Knoxville's history backwards.

Okay, maybe you can't see as many actual dogwood blossoms as you can through your car window in Sequoyah Hills. But here you can stop anywhere along the way and have a picnic or smell a wildflower or ask a fisherman to show you his catch. On an April morning along old Third Creek, spring is palpable and provocative.