Front Page

The 'Zine

Sunsphere City

Bonus Track

Market Square

Contact us!
About the site

Secret History

on this story

The Quiet Man

Not that it was our Ellis Island

by Jack Neely

There are lots of old doomed buildings in those three blocks you've seen colored in on downtown maps. The ones that have gotten the most attention are those along Gay Street, especially the art-deco S&W Cafeteria. There's also the old WROL studio building where Roy Acuff got his start in radio broadcasting. And the concrete facade that was until last week Gus's; inside is the original Walgreen's lunch counter described in some national wire stories about Knoxville's civil-rights sit-ins in 1960, maybe our best relic of those bold days. We've already written about all those likely casualties in these pages.

But there's also a cluster of brick Victorian buildings with tall arched windows facing Central, at the corner of the last shred of old Commerce Street. These four storefronts seem to be the only remnant—outside of the Old City, at least—of the busy, crowded, dangerous strip we called the Bowery. At the corner, the building that still has a round brick window, was for years an Irish saloon that went by several names over the years: McLemore's, Gallagher & McCracken's, Cunningham's. Local prohibition closed it in 1907. One of these storefronts was McDade's Poolhall, a favorite with the turn-of-the-century black community. One was Amos Bodenhamer's blacksmith shop.

And because I walk by it nearly every day, I've been curious for years about one particular parking garage at the corner of Union and State. It's brick covered with stucco painted a color I can't name. Some times of day it looks pink, but when the sun shines it's yellow. On top is a curvaceous masonry pediment like an antique cabinet might have, stylish for some bygone, prewar time. Its several large, hinged, steel-frame windows have been completely empty of glass for years, as if they'd been removed, not broken. Its wooden-plank ceiling is much loftier than that of any other parking garage in town. A weirdly angled concrete ramp spirals down to another level in the basement.

The garage has seen better days. Outside the building looks as if it had solidly deflected cannon fire, its stucco gone in patches to reveal the red brick. It looks like an auto-age Alamo.

And it has a tall brick chimney. Why would a parking garage need a chimney? I figured it was just one of those unexplainable Knoxville things. But I went to look it up in the old city directories just to see what kind of parking company would build such an elaborate building. As it turns out, this wasn't just a parking garage. It was our first bus station.

In 1925, when the Interurban Bus Terminal opened here, most East Tennesseans didn't own cars. Some still drove wagons to town; when this terminal was built, in fact, it was next door to State Street's last livery stables. Railroad travel was still the mode of choice, but trains didn't go everywhere. For tens of thousands of country people, one shopping trip to Knoxville was a two or three-day prospect. Clean, modern motor buses, hailed as "great, swift, and comfortable," changed that.

This building was the busiest place on State Street. At its height, the station building featured a restaurant—the "Terminal Lunch Room"—in the middle. By 1928, the station was handling 2,000 travelers a day. Each day, dozens of buses left here for points all around East Tennessee. Some buses even drove from here all the way to Asheville. By changing buses in other stations, you could get to nearly any town in America, something folks in 1925 found remarkable.

There were 10 bus lines in all—White Star Lines, the Lone Star Lines, even the Red Riding Hood Line—rival companies who cooperated to build and operate this terminal building. Buses weren't much taller than ordinary cars, but were sometimes the longest things on the road, looking like stretch limousines, sometimes with individual doors for each seat. Some buses had their own names, like "the Tennessee Flier."

Some visitors who disembarked here weren't just shoppers. In the '20s, Knoxville received a flood of rural immigrants, refugees from an agricultural depression and failing mines. They came to Knoxville in greater numbers than ever before, looking for work in the textile mills or the coster shops or the restaurants. Some brought guitars to make a living in the streets, singing songs for nickels and dimes. Many of them, hailing from communities too small for a train station, came by bus. It's a safe bet that thousands of future Knoxvillians first set foot in their new home in this fancy new building. I'm not saying it's our Ellis Island or anything.

By the '30s, bus traffic was apparently such that it had outgrown this building. The larger Union Terminal opened a block north and on the other side of State Street, and served as Knoxville's bus terminal for a quarter century.

Meanwhile, the original terminal became a not-quite-ordinary parking lot for a city that was rapidly motorizing itself. As late as the '40s, the company that operated it was known as the Old Bus Terminal Parking Company. By the '50s, people weren't naming businesses after Old Bus Terminals anymore. The Old Bus Terminal was still here, but it was a Park-Rite. Until just lately, commuters were still using the Old Bus Terminal as a parking lot with an unusually fine roof. But they're not parking there today. "GARAGE CLOSED," a sign warns, with the usual threats about Cedar Bluff Towing.

By the time you read this, the Old Interurban Bus Terminal may be gone. It's one of the couple dozen buildings about to be demolished because they're in the way of the new three-square-block Justice Palace. Most of these old buildings probably aren't worth making a fuss over. But it seems to me you haven't completely announced your project until you've told the people exactly what will be lost.