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  Time Pieces

Our list of the historical events that made Knoxville what it is today—and what it isn't.

by Jack Neely

Whether you think the century turns at the end of 1999 or hold with those who insist the 20th Century isn't over until the end of 2000, it's clear that sometime in the next 18 months, we're coming to the end of an amazing period. No one in 1899 could have predicted how the 20th century would change the character of the nation; but it changed the character of this city even more. The 20th century yanked Knoxville up off the rails, sent it over the dam and through a graphite reactor and then hurtled it down the interstate at 70 m.p.h., toward parts unknown.

Knoxville began the century as an unmistakably urban manufacturing city, one of the biggest mill towns in the South; we're ending it as a city best known for a university and a couple of mammoth federal entities, less urban, but much larger: a diffused metropolitan area of three quarters of a million people. What happened? There have been improvements, certainly—though only a few came without costs that rivaled the benefits. Some weren't recognized, at the time, for what they would mean; but maybe, the end of a century gives us a vantage point to see them more clearly.

Saloons Close, 1907.

The era of Carrie Nation may seem long ago and far away, but when the temperance movement, after decades of trying, finally abolished legal liquor in Knoxville, it had major consequences for the whole 20th Century—consequences that may have been more profound than the gradual re-legalization of liquor a few decades later.

For more than half the century, liquor in any form was illegal in Knoxville. For a longer time, nearly two-thirds of the century, liquor by the drink was illegal here, too. Closing the saloons didn't end drinking, of course. There were about 100 saloons in Knoxville in 1907. When they voted themselves dry, Knoxville men were consuming an average of three drinks a day; most had no intention of changing their personal habits. Speakeasies and country clubs sprang up almost immediately. And when national prohibition arrived 12 years later, Knoxville became a hub for the nationwide bootlegging trade.

Closing the saloons didn't stop people drinking, but did change the way people lived. Some of those changes were positive, and perhaps still felt today. Knoxville at the turn of the century was a violent place—estimated by one YMCA reformer to be one of the most dangerous cities in the South, second only to New Orleans. Much of the crime—prostitution, drug trafficking, murder—happened on the old Central Avenue "Bowery" where most of the saloons were located. About the time the saloons closed, the assault rate began to fall. Modern "saloons" have been legal for a quarter century. In that time, Knoxville's crime rate has gone up and down, but Knoxville's murder rate has never approached its pre-1907 levels. Prohibition might have been the strict hand we needed to get us through our municipal adolescence.

However, after 1907, Knoxville also became more of a private city than it had ever been before, segregated both by race and by class, as various groups sought private places to drink. To this day, most Knoxvillians still drink—and entertain—more privately than their ancestors did. Newcomers still comment, often with some regret, that Knoxville is a less public city than many others.

National Conservation Exposition, 1913.

Held at Chilhowee Park, it wasn't just a huge show that entertained more than a million people in only two months with motorcycle races and a "Wild West Show." Blessed and partly organized by conservationist Gifford Pinchot, it was the nation's first exposition devoted to conservationism; its nine major buildings housed exhibits that helped visitors understand the importance of conserving land, air, water, wildlife, and other natural resources. The big fair has even been described as the nation's first "futuristic" exposition; previous fairs had celebrated historical events.

More than the 1982 World's Fair, the Conservation Exposition did what an exposition is supposed to do—it got people thinking. The local push to found the Great Smoky Mountains National Park began within a decade of the Exposition of 1913, involving some of the same people.

First large-scale suburban annexations, 1917.

For Knoxville's first century or so, annexations were always modest: a neighborhood here and there, all of them adjacent to downtown, all within a 15-minute walk of the courthouse. Big annexations in 1897 added huge acreage to the north and west of the city, but at the turn of the century, you could still hike Knoxville's entire city-limits perimeter in less than two hours. Knoxville in 1900 was a teeming but concentrated city, a profitable market for organ-grinders, fruit-sellers, jugglers, stumpers, fiddlers, chestnut vendors. Interest in local issues was high, and a city council meeting or a political rally on temperance, feminism, or socialism might bring crowds in the thousands—often larger crowds than comparable events would bring in a much larger city a century later.

In 1917, Knoxville added huge, mostly residential tracts in all directions, including, for the first time, trans-river South Knoxville, Park City, North Hills, Lonsdale, the future Sequoyah Hills—in all, an area more than five times the size of the city that annexed it. For the first time, the city was annexing areas that were accessible only by streetcar or automobile. The anchluss symbolized motor-driven suburbanization that was already underway, and also sanctioned it. Along the way, it changed the way we think about Knoxville as a city. You could no longer "go to Knoxville" from your quiet, pastoral home in Lincoln Park. You were already there. Only after 1917 could you be a Knoxvillian but not a downtowner.

The city expanded in acreage much more rapidly than it did in population. As Knoxville grew, the city grew less dense. Knoxville became suburban.

Eventually, the frequent urban street fairs and festivals and parades and demonstrations dissipated, moved to the suburbs, perhaps still held but usually unwitnessed by visitors. Political apathy about local issues, which would have been nearly impossible before 1917, became an option. By the 1930s, groceries, restaurants, even movie theaters were popping up in the suburbs. Knoxville became much larger in the 20th century than it had ever been before—but, ironically, less "urban."

Women get the vote, 1919.

Women on City Council and County Commission and women representing Knoxville in the state legislature have become so normal, it's hard to believe that for the first two decades of this same century that's not even over yet, women were not even allowed to vote.

In ratifying the amendment, Tennessee cast the deciding vote, no doubt persuaded by Tennessee feminists including Knoxville's own Lizzie Crozier French, a lifelong activist for women's rights. Here, it had almost immediate results. As representative to Knox County's seat in the state legislature from 1925-27, Annie Davis introduced key legislation that led to the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In spite of that promising beginning, it would be another 40 years before it was typical to see women in leadership roles in public life.

First radio station, 1921.

From its first broadcast atop Summit Hill in the fall of '21, WNOX has been described as the first radio station in Tennessee. It all happened when a teenager who worked for the phone company rigged up his own transmitter; Stuart Adcock brought Knoxville and, perhaps, Tennessee, into the age of radio.

For both better and worse, radio changed the way people lived, perhaps more profoundly than television would, 30 years later.

Before radio, Knoxvillians kept up with breaking news—especially elections and sports—by crowding around big boards on Gay Street and buying "extra" editions of the dailies. Slowly, during the '20s and '30s, radio made those gatherings obsolete, and allowed Knoxvillians to get their news at home.

For over 25 years WNOX and, to a lesser degree, WROL, sponsored regular and well-attended public performances of what would later be called "country music," and in so doing launched several major national careers, notably those of Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins, who would have tremendous influences on both the forms of country music and on the publishing and recording industries in Nashville.

Ironically, in spite of its role in hosting public performances, radio ultimately broke people of the habit of going out for music, news, and other entertainment, encouraging them to spend more time at home. Several downtown auditoriums that once catered to Knoxville's demand for musical shows went out of business. When TV came along, it only reinforced the changes radio had already wrought. Only in recent years have Knoxville public performances of drama and music caught up to the frequency and popularity they enjoyed before 1921.

Vols defeat Alabama, 1928.

The event itself actually happened in Tuscaloosa, but the victory, and the many that followed, echoed around Knoxville for more than seven decades to come.

Knoxville was no sort of sports town in 1928. Baseball was bigger than football here, and baseball wasn't all that big. To be sure, UT football had fans before 1928, just as Maryville College football has fans today. Shields-Watkins Field's stands were about the size of Bill Meyer Stadium, and not nearly as nice, but plenty adequate to seat the fans who showed up to see a team that had never been invited to a bowl game. The Vols weren't necessarily even one of the two or three best-known football teams in Tennessee.

Alabama's Crimson Tide, on the other hand, was already famous in the 1920s, a national contender. To say Alabama was favored that Saturday is an understatement. Bookies favored the Tide by as much as six touchdowns. But Alabama had not played Tennessee in over a decade. They had no experience with this squad, or its young coach, Army Maj. Bob Neyland. Neyland pleaded with Alabama coach Wallace Wade not to run up the score. If Alabama was comfortably ahead, the two coaches made an unusual gentleman's agreement: well, they said, to prevent unnecessary humiliation, they'd just shorten the third and fourth quarters by a few minutes.

That kind of talk ended the moment the actual game started. UT halfback Gene McEver, the "Bristol Blizzard," returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, and it was already over. The astonished Crimson Tide never even tied it up. Led by quarterback Bobby Dodd—with a key play by "Hobo" Thayer, who fell on a fumble in the end zone and chalked up a safety—Tennessee won, 15-13.

The game gave Bama a serious regional rival for years to come. It made Neyland a national celebrity, at least in college-football circles. And back in Knoxville, UT administrators decided to add 11,000 more seats to Shields-Watkins Field, almost tripling its capacity. Coach Neyland's 1928 team may have founded something that would later be called Volmania—and may have also gotten Knoxville intrigued in the prospect of college sports in general.

Founding of TVA, 1933.

We think of it as ours, but the federal agency founded in Washington could easily have landed somewhere else. Alabamans have long argued TVA's headquarters were supposed to be down there in Mussel Shoals, a much more central location in the Tennessee Valley. However, FDR's men had decided to put TVA's first dam at Norris, and Knoxville was the nearest city. Original boardmembers Morgan, Morgan and Lilienthal wanted to be in an office where they'd be able to show off their flagship dam. In 1933 they rented some rooms in Knoxville, where one of the original directors was already living, and here they stayed.

For the rest of the century, TVA influenced our power supply as it did throughout the valley—but here TVA was also a major employer. There's no question that Knoxville was an interesting, lively, and sometimes even dynamic place before TVA. But by 1933, many of Knoxville's Victorian-era industries and wholesalers were faltering, and this unlikely federal headquarters picked up much of the slack—unexpectedly transforming Knoxville into a government town for the first time since we'd lost state-capitol status in 1819. TVA eventually moved into several downtown buildings: the recently vacated post office building, Arnstein's old department store building, and others, and Knoxville got used to having lots of engineers and draftsmen around. It's hard to picture Knoxville over the latter two-thirds of the century without it.

Founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1923-1934.

TVA's arrival in Knoxville was partly an accident of history; the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains was not.

As the century opened, the Smokies were remote and mysterious even to most Knoxvillians, "entered solely by hearty venturers"; author Horace Kephart described the turn-of-the-century Smokies as "terra incognita...a region of which less is known to the world at large than the heart of Africa or the steppes of Siberia." There were no roads through the mountains, and few hikable trails; much of it wasn't even mapped, and there were said to be hollows in there that no human had seen.

The automobile made the mountains more accessible, though, and some Knoxville motorists found themselves spending their weekends up there, finding old trails, making new ones. It was, in fact, a conversation among members of the Knoxville Automobile Club in 1923 that motivated members to shepherd the park project through state and national legislation and partly funded it. In Knoxville, the "Great Smoky Mountains National Park" was advertised by that name to tourists as early as 1930; the movement was formalized when the idea was approved by Congress in 1934. In only a couple of decades of our century, this terra incognita became the most popular national park in America, and in turn influenced the city that founded it.

For the next three decades, Knoxville did indeed have a legitimate claim to be "the Gateway to the Smokies." That phrase built hotels and motels all around town, developed Chapman Highway, and oriented Knoxville, for this first time in the city's history, toward tourism. You could get closer to the mountains, in a few motor courts in Blount or Sevier Counties, and up at the Mountain View in Gatlinburg, if they had room. But only in Knoxville could you get dependable plumbing, movies, and beer.

Knoxville wasn't really in the Smokies, though—and in years to come dozens of large and small tourist communities sprang up in Blount and Sevier Counties, as well as across the ridge in North Carolina, and acquired much of Knoxville's profitable "gateway" status.

Today the mountains draw people to the Knoxville area in numbers never anticipated; but they also draw people away from Knoxville itself, especially Knoxvillians.

Construction of McGhee-Tyson Airport, 1935.

We'd had a couple of airports before; the original McGhee-Tyson (1927) was on Sutherland, just on the town side of Bearden. There was another commercial airstrip at Island Home by 1930, where barnstormers had already been landing for years. In 1935, with the early development of airline travel, city fathers realized we'd have to get serious about air travel with a much larger location than either of those. Finding that much flat land was a challenge in this area: various sites in Knox County were serious contenders, but leaders decided to gamble on the future of the aeroplane in a big way, going deep into Blount County to find 1,400 suitably flat acres, with even more room for future expansion. It was so far outside of town that some wanted to name it the Great Smoky Mountains Airport; but businessman George Dempster recalled a promise the city had made to the bereaved mother of a flyer named McGhee Tyson who had been killed in a crash in the final weeks of the Great War; Bettie Tyson had donated Tyson Park to the city with the understanding that the city's airport would always be named for her only son.

To a city that with a 150-year-old reputation for remoteness, the airport kept Knoxville abreast with the newest trends in transportation. Granted, passenger-airline aviation in the '30s was a curiosity enjoyed mainly by the rich; the full effects of having a large airport would be more widely felt in years to come.

Construction of Fort Loudoun Dam, 1940-43.

We consider it as a separate phenomenon from the establishment of TVA that built it. Today, if our basement furniture gets ruined and we can't drive on Broadway for a few hours, we call it a flood. But before Fort Loudoun Dam, Knoxville was subject to serious floods that drowned livestock, pets, and people.

Fort Loudoun Dam also created Fort Loudoun Lake, adding over 200 miles of new waterfront, all within an hour's drive of downtown. Knoxville was suddenly nautical, populated with motorboat captains and bass fishermen—and the weekend lake house, finished in knotty pine with bunks for the kids and a dock for the boat, became part of the Knoxvillian Dream.

Saturday afternoons in the city became quieter than ever before.

Manhattan Project, 1942-45.

The savviest investor on Gay Street 60 years ago could never have guessed at this one: that a temporary government project that happened in a remote rural area 30 miles outside of the city limits, in another county, even—and was top secret, anyway—would affect the daily life of Knoxville proper, for half a century and for the foreseeable future beyond that.

To us, the Manhattan Project was just an employer—a mysterious one, to be sure, but one that made good on its paychecks, and after a decade of Depression, that counted for something. Then it was what ended the Pacific Theater of World War II, and brought the boys home a little sooner than we expected.

Then it bred Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and a science-based municipality unlike any in Tennessee history. As many Oak Ridge commuters chose to live in Knox County, ORNL arguably also spawned the West Knoxville juggernaut. Before ORNL, Knoxville's western city limits were at Sequoyah Hills. Since ORNL, the western limits have leapt more than ten miles to the west—in the general direction of Oak Ridge, which is no longer a country drive away.

The G.I. Bill, 1945.

As the century opened, the University of Tennessee already had official state "land grant" status; but with only a few hundred students, it was still tiny. UT was a respectable institution, arguably even a progressive one, with a nationally famous educator as its president. But UT was not a prominent part of Knoxville's culture and economy; UT's enrollment accounted for barely 1 percent of Knoxville's total population. When city promoters did mention UT, it was often listed in the same sentence with Knoxville College and Tennessee School for the Deaf .

The single biggest leap in UT's enrollment came with the G.I. Bill. Before 1945, the University of Tennessee was still limited strictly to the Hill, with about 3,000 students. When thousands of GIs returned from World War II, waving the certificates that guaranteed them the college education denied to most of their parents, UT had to expand, and fast. By 1947, UT's enrollment was over 8,000 students, most of them former G.I.'s, many of them living in impromptu trailer "villages" around campus. Over the next 20 years, UT maintained that swollen enrollment and even grew larger, using eminent domain to condemn a large residential neighborhood along old Temple Avenue, Circle Park, and Melrose Place, which would become the most familiar part of UT's campus.

The university's tide rose for 30 years, carrying the baby boom through college. By the time it was all over, the university was 100 times the size it had been a century before.

Construction of I-40 and I-75, 1950s-60s.

If viewed from the Moon, Knoxville's 20th century could be described mainly as an exercise in massive road construction. Paving projects in the 1920s linked Knoxville to Chattanooga and other regional cities, but it all paled compared to the postwar invention called the Expressway.

When it was first planned in 1951 as the first divided highway in an urban area in Tennessee, it was called the "Magnolia Expressway," a magic carpet that connected Magnolia Avenue in the east to Bearden in the west without a single stoplight. When they added a north-south corridor, they began calling it "the X-Way."

After the national interstate system was established in 1956, the federal government decided to attach all of America to Knoxville's city-planned expressway.

Envisioned by some as a "heavenly dream-drive," the expressway—it wouldn't be called "the interstate" until the late 1960s—would be incredibly expensive; its pricetag, in the billions of dollars, was comparable only to World War II. But they promised to save time and gas. And, by eliminating intersections, they were guaranteed to save thousands of lives every year: Americans agreed it was hard to put a price on that. Interstates would also abolish traffic jams forever; a newspaper ran a photo of a minor backup at Broadway and Central in 1956, with the caption, "An end to this?" Boosters also said it would make commuter suburbs of towns as far away as Kingston and Morristown, and bring more East Tennessee shoppers to downtown Knoxville.

It might be tempting to remark that people 40 years ago never dreamed of the interstates as we know them, but they did. In fact, the interstate as planned in the mid-'50s isn't complete even today. The "Southern Belt Route" across South Knoxville was only begun, and the western link of the Downtown Loop—meant to connect Neyland Drive with the interstate at Second Creek—was never commenced. The "Dutch Valley Loop" project announced in the '50s was unfinished for 30 years before it opened as I-640.

There were other disappointments. Interstates were never as safe as imagined; in the interstate era, nationwide traffic fatalities never even dipped. To the consternation of many, traffic jams didn't abate that much; interstates gave them a new place to happen, and an especially disconcerting one, without the escape of cross streets. A 40-mile commute is still a 40-mile commute. And interstates took shoppers out of town—breeding a new concept, the interstate- exit strip mall—as often as they brought them in.

The X-Way also destroyed or bisected several old downtown neighborhoods. If you recall the old residential neighborhood called McAnally Flats, you already know about that. And if you've never heard of McAnally Flats, you may drive over where it was every day on I-40, just west of downtown. When the residents of Marion Street in North Knoxville held a sentimental going-away party for their old neighborhood, the newspaper characterized it as "a lot of moaning."

However, the fact that two major national interstate routes, I-75 and I-40, eventually combined in Knoxville made the city more of a transportation hub than it had ever been before, more connected to the rest of America. For a city whose surrounding topography had often made it hard to get to, by steamboat and later by rail, sudden convenience to the rest of the nation seemed a quantum hurtle, especially to businessmen.

Ironically, the interstate was feared to be commercial death for Kingston Pike; what little business activity there was on the Pike was a few restaurants and motor courts directed at Highway 70 travelers. Much of the old Pike did shrivel—but not those parts that were within half a mile of the interstate. Few foresaw that the completion of I-40 would turn sleepy old trans-Bearden Kingston Pike into a sort of frontage road and, somehow, electrify it.

Desegregation of downtown and UT, 1960-63.

In the early days of the Space Age, Knoxville was in many respects more racially segregated than the city had been during the Civil War. Most knew it was just a matter of time. To push it over, it took a small cadre of UT and Knoxville College students (among them, strange as it may seem, future Washington Mayor Marion Barry); the most dramatic events came with the downtown lunchcounter sit-ins in June of 1960. A few months later, Theotis Robinson and a few other blacks enrolled at UT; though the university had taken black graduate students since '52, they were the first black undergrads.

Fortunately, desegregation in Knoxville didn't prompt serious violence on either side. Most downtown restaurants desegregated in a matter of weeks in 1960; some other restaurants and movie theaters were a little more stubborn—but still, most Knoxville businesses desegregated voluntarily, a little earlier and more easily than most of the South did. It was never exciting enough to inspire a PBS documentary or a made-for-TV movie (though it did spawn an interesting book, Merrill Proudfoot's Diary of a Sit-In), but it was effective, if only in dissolving the legal boundaries. The activists of 1960 might have been dismayed at the social segregation that persists here almost 40 years later.


The developments of the last quarter-century are a little more obscure; obviously, we don't yet know how things like the Chamber Partnership or the Convention Center or Volunteer Landing and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame will turn out. Here are a few contenders.

The rise and fall of Whittle Communications, 1969-1994.

It failed. But, for a quarter of this century, Whittle succeeded in bringing a lot of money and, more importantly, talent to this tired town. What do the editor and art director of Metro Pulse and the president of the Chamber Partnership have in common? Not much, except that years ago they all originally moved to Knoxville just to work for Whittle Communications. Lots of lively festivals and musical events of the '80s and early '90s would have been unlikely without Whittle, in supplying both money and participants. Would the Old City or the Knoxville Opera Company have survived their infancies without the sustenance of Whittle and the people it lured and stranded here? Maybe, but we wouldn't want to bet on it.

1982 World's Fair.

Most UT undergrads today aren't old enough to remember the World's Fair, but it still seems too recent to fully evaluate what it did for the city. It's best known nationally as the first fair in over 75 years to include mainland China, a surprising development that seemed symbolic of a new era of good feelings in Sino-American relations.

Its effects on its host city may have had more lasting. The assertion that Knoxville became a "real city" in 1982 might have startled Knoxvillians of a century earlier, who were in the habit of comparing Knoxville to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, even New York. But for what it's worth, Knoxville probably did become more recognizable nationally than it had been since early TVA days, sometimes even mentioned in the national news without that clarifying suffix, Tennessee. And we cleaned up that creek valley where, fortunately, we never got around to building the interstate loop. After 17 years, we're still trying to figure out how to best use the World's Fair site—just as we keep trying out how best to use this city whose purpose and nature keeps changing.