on this story
A colorful walk through the streets of Knoxville, circa 1900
by Jack Neely
If through some Y2K conjury the non-compliant computers turn out to be right after all, and the year 2000 really is the same thing as the year 1900, well, it'll take us some getting used to. The things that haven't changed are nearly as surprising as the things that have.
In any case, to give us a sense of what a century really is, we thought we'd picture Knoxville as it was in 1900, at the very beginning of what is, for the moment, the century we still share.
To any of us, Knoxville of 1900 would be a strange, new city, unexpectedly noisy and smoky and crowded, with few recognizable landmarks. Neither of our historic train stations have been built yet. No tall buildings are recognizable on the skyline: not the Andrew Johnson or the old Hamilton Bank building, not even Miller's or the Burwell or the Arnstein.
A lot of the things we think of as Old Knoxville aren't even new yet. There's no Bijou or Tennessee Theatre, no Sequoyah Hills, no Regas Restaurant, no Cherokee Country Club. There's no Fort Loudoun Lake, no Norris Lake or Douglas Lake. The Smoky Mountains are there, on a clear day, but very hard to get to; most Knoxvillians have never been to the Smokies, except maybe on the Asheville train.
There's no such thing as radio or TV or airplanes, of course. There are only one or two automobiles in town, homemade jobs that don't always work right. Movies are short, silent, black-and-white films of guys boxing or sneezing. Telephones are expensive, and most people don't have them. There's no resident symphony orchestra, at least not a full-sized one, and no dependable art museum. The UT football team plays five or six games a year on a field near the train tracks on the outskirts of town. The university itself has fewer than 800 students.
If that sounds dull, maybe you're not getting the full picture.
At Staub's Theater and Chilhowee Park and lots of smaller storefront venues, there were more live professional musical and dramatic productions in town in a typical month in 1900 than there are today. There were also more circuses, more festivals, more parades, more picnics, more baseball games, more public spectacles like balloon ascensions and tightrope walkers. There are two horse-racing tracks and an amusement park with a roller coaster. More street musicians, jugglers, and hucksters, and, surprisingly, far more saloons per capita. There was also more cocaine and more murder.
If you hear people sigh, about some time in the vague past, it was a simpler time, well, they usually don't know what they're talking about. They're definitely not talking about the year 1900.
If you were suddenly to find yourself in Knoxville in the year 1900, you'd probably arrive the way most people did, at the crowded Southern Depot. You'd step out into the cigar-smoky depot showing the strain of being too old and too small in a city growing impossibly fast. If you hear the blind man playing guitar and blowing on a harmonica on a homemade headset and singing homely songs in his weird, high voice, tip him a nickel. His name is Charlie Oaks, and he's the railroad-station's troubadour. Later on in this new century, he'll make recordings, and some historians will call him America's first professional country musician. There's no way you or he could know that yet; neither of you has ever heard of "country music." For now, he's happy with a nickel.
When you step outside, here's what you see: brick-paved streets beneath ponderous electric and telephone wires and large glass-globed electric streetlights. Cunningham's Saloon on Depot, Pat Harrigan's saloon on the corner.
Next door, a newsstand, competing with another newsstand across the street, near the crashing sounds of Bohannon's pool hall. You'd pick up a copy of the morning Journal & Tribune for 2 cents, just to get your bearings. There used to be three daily papers in Knoxville, but since the Journal and the Tribune merged a couple of years ago, now there are just the two, not counting about half a dozen weeklies. The other daily is the Knoxville Sentinel. It's more conservative than the Journal & Tribune, especially on issues of race; articles about black people sometimes headline them as "Sambos." The Journal & Tribune is a Republican paper, allegedly the only one in the South, relatively progressive on racial issues, run by Capt. William Rule, the Union veteran. He even has a female reporter on staff: Patty Boyd, the 33-year-old society columnist, although the all-male newsroom isn't comfortable with her actually working alongside them. She files her stories via her butler.
You glance at headlines about the horrors of the Boer War and McKinley's re-election campaign against Bryan. Both candidates have visited Knoxville in the last couple of years; both have friends and strong adherents here.
You fold it and put it under your arm and walk across the arched bridge over the tracks, down then up again, up steep Gay Street; along the way, more saloons and Charles Truan's umbrella and bicycle-repair shop. Mary Brichetto's fruit stand, Goetz and Yoffee's jewelry store, Tapley Portlock's bookstore, with Louie Jacob's tailor shop up on the second floor. Along the way, you overhear a dozen varieties of foreign accents. This is the immigrant part of town, close to both the synagogues and the old Catholic church; Sam Leventhal, "dyer and scourer," and Simon Deitch's clothing store are all right here, as well as George Weiser's walkup photography studio. On the left is Fiorenzi Rebori's fruit stand. Overlooking shoppers is the second-floor library Col. McGhee named for his deceased daughter, Lawson.
All that's on the first block you come to. Then, on the next corner, Cal Johnson's saloon, the Lone Tree, named for the one tree that still stands on Gay Street. You might want to stop in; the well-dressed gentleman inside is 56-year-old Cal Johnson, who runs it and a few other businesses. He's one of Knoxville's celebrities. Among the wealthiest men in town in 1900, he also owns a string of racehorses that have won prizes from here to Chicago. Which is all the more remarkable when you hear he was raised just down the street, as a slave.
Next door to the Lone Tree is Jim East's cigar store and the Knoxville Cigar Co., a proud Union shop that manufactures the popular "Boot Jack" variety. Then there's Raf Marmora's fruit stand, where you can get everything from oranges to coconuts to English walnuts, and Houser's saloon. Across the street, Shapira and Dryzer's notions shop, Ashe's liquor store, Dr. Simon's Remedy Co., Sam Dismukes' hats and caps.
Cross Commerce and you're into a larger-scale district: Whittle's trunk company, Arnstein's department store, then, at Union, McBath & Co. Drugs, "Knoxville's busiest," where the soda fountain serves limeades and phosphates and ice cream sodas. Like its chief competition, Kuhlman's, which also serves Hot Clam Bouillon at its soda fountain, it's open all night long. Most drugstores are; there's sometimes a big demand for drugs late at night.
Nearby, just past Van Gilder's plate-glass shop, right between a fancy women's clothing shop called the Bazaar, where you can buy a chiffon boa for just $1.50, and the more staid Third National Bank, is the New Century Restaurant.
You'd keep walking, past Sterchi Brothers, past Kress' five and dime, past Lieber Bros. clothing, past Noah's Ark Novelties and Woodruff's Hardware, the block that has recovered amazingly since the fatal Million-Dollar Fire that leveled it three years ago. There's the Stag Saloon, McArthur & Son pianos, the New York Confectionery Co., Knaffl & Bro. photographic studios. Peer down Union as you go by, and you'll see the Marble City Bank and the White Elephant Cafe and Saloon, where you can get the "merchants' lunch" for 15 cents.
There, right next to Jacob Blaufeld's cigar shop and newsstand, a grand Victorian hotel, four stories not counting the big dormer, with pennants up on top. It's the finest hotel in Knoxville, "Strictly first class, all modern conveniences," with rooms up to $4.50 a day.
It's pretty pricey for 1900. You could save some money if you went a couple blocks more down to the Cumberland, where rates were just $2 a day, an extra four bits if you wanted a bath. Or the Palace Hotel, back on State, which had rooms as cheap as $1.25, even though they had an elevator and electric lights. There were several even cheaper, but you probably wouldn't want to be seen there.
The Imperial's the one you've heard about, though, so you walk inside, past the bar and the barber shop and the Western Union office, through the spacious lobby full of rocking chairs, to the massive, Romanesque front desk.
You find your room, remove your derby, and wash your face. The Imperial has running water, of course. All the better hotels do. You can even take a chance and drink it. After years of complaints, Knoxville now filters the water it extracts from the big concrete pumping station on the river. The sewers, which are all downtown, spill directly into the river. Fortunately, you've heard, the water intake plant is upstream from most of the sewers.
On second thought, you might just order a bottle of phosphate. Then you open your valise, and have a look at the City Directory and the last census figures, to see what makes this city so busy.
Knoxville has 80 doctors, 24 dentists, 94 lawyers, 10 banks, 22 drugstores, 13 music teachers, seven professional photographers, eight architects, five tinners, 14 blacksmiths, 14 tailor shops, 40 cobblers, 42 barbers, 47 dressmakers, two roller-skating rinks, three bicycle shops, five newsstands.
About one-fourth of the jobs in Knoxville are in manufacturing, which puts Knoxville among the South's most industrial cities. Here are more than 4,000 manufacturing jobs. They call Knoxville "the Marble City," because of its huge marble industry; pink Tennessee marble is prized in expensive buildings from here to New York.
Marble's just part of what makes Knoxville so noisy. In all, the city has 218 factories and workshops, including seven textile mills, a furnace factory, a large iron foundry, a small coffee plant, two box factories, two meat packers, a boilermaker, a big railroad-car factory, three breweries, two bedspring factories, a piano factory, a broom factory, a boat-oar factory, a mosquito-net factory, and a chewing-gum factory.
Knoxville also claims to be one of the two or three largest jobbing centers in the South, and the scores of businesses along Gay Street and Jackson Avenue make it one of the South's highest-volume wholesaling centers.
The city supports 113 grocers, not counting 16 fruitsellers and 49 meat markets, 28 restaurants, 55 legal saloons, five undertakers.
And almost all of that is downtown.
Knoxville has grown at an amazing rate, everybody says so, quadrupled in size over the last 30 years; it's fully seven times the size of the defunct state capital that had survived artillery assaults from both armies during the Civil War. Knoxville's a new industrial city that has almost forgotten the few altered, weatherboarded log cabins behind the loading docks. A few years ago, the city's centennial came and went; Knoxville didn't even note the date.
The city's population is now 32,637a figure that's more impressive when you remember that all of those people live within the city's narrow boundaries. When you cross the Gay Street Bridge, you leave the city. Knoxville's western city limits are at the old stone bridge on Cumberland Avenue that crosses Third Creek.
Everyone who lives in Knoxville in 1900 lives within a 20-minute walk of the courthouse. Moreover, some live within a 20-minute walk of the courthouse and don't even live in Knoxville. Almost 75,000 people live in Knox County, and many of them are downtown every day. Gay Street sidewalks are sometimes dangerously crowded; a surge can swell the crowd out into the street in the way of a passing electric trolley.
Knoxville's only America's 126th largest city; still, it's not unusual to hear Knoxvillians use words like "metropolis" and "cosmopolitan" to describe the city. America is still an agrarian nation, after all; in 1900, more than 80 percent of Americans live in communities smaller than Knoxville.
Knoxville's almost one-fourth black, a very high proportion for a Northern city in 1900, but low for a Southern city. Which category Knoxville fits is a matter of ongoing debate. There's one black alderman in city government, as there has been for most of the years since the Civil War, but now blacks say they're feeling more and more shut out. Two decades ago, Knoxville boasted of its unusual record of racial cooperation. But last year, a group of middle-class blacks, discouraged with the lack of progress here since Reconstruction, moved to Honolulu. Among them was attorney Sam Maples, recently an elected member of County Court. He would be the last black in county government for 50 years.
Within Knoxville's narrow city limits are also almost 1,000 immigrants, not counting their American-born children and grandchildren. Most didn't speak English when they got here. About a quarter of the new immigrants are German, another quarter Irish. There are quite a few Swiss, though at this point most are no longer immigrants, a handful of Italians, and 71 Russians, several of them Jewish refugees. Two synagogues, the 35-year-old Temple Beth El, and the new, orthodox Heska Amuna, both of them located on the northern side of downtown near where most of the immigrants live. The Swiss, Germans, and Irish are especially well-organized and hold regular meetings, parades, picnics, street festivals. Some of the older Germans and French Swiss speak little English and somehow get along in Knoxville, where there are still some bilingual merchants. The Lutheran church on Asylum Ave. still holds its services in German. Selling food from handcarts in the street in 1900 are also a couple of Greek immigrants, the beginnings of a new community.
Knoxville has always been an immigrant town, even elected several immigrants to be mayor of the city. About a decade ago, during Martin Condon's administration, Irish Catholics dominated city government. However, as rural working-class Tennesseans moved into town looking for work, the demographics seem to be changing.
Even among the native-born Americans, few Knoxvillians in 1900 were born here. It's a city of newcomers. "Possibly no city in the country is more cosmopolitan than Knoxville," claimed one late 19th-century booster. Only in Knoxville do "Eastern, Northern, Western, and Southern people mingle in about equal proportions." A small number of Knoxvillians, probably fewer than one in 10, can recall Knoxville 30 years ago. To them, as to most immigrants, Knoxville is a new city.
Knoxville sees itself that way. The modern electric trolley is 10 years old. It runs about 50 streetcars now, over more than 20 miles of track. That's not counting the steam "dummy line" to Fountain City, a slow train that runs up Broad from its terminal near Gray Cemetery. It's hailed as one of the best public-transportation systems in the South. The streetcar company is even involved in the entertainment business, sponsoring Chilhowee Park, "Knoxville's Grandest Pleasure Resort." They developed the park and all its attractions, from the merry-go-round to the bicycle trail, because most people had to use their streetcars to get to it.
Knoxville is "modern in its architecture and its aspects everywhere," writes an observer in the Journal & Tribune. "In its clubs, churches, its theater, places of suburban rest, electric street lights and electric street railways," Knoxville is "truly a City of To-Day."
Knoxville's confident that in this new century it will take its place as one of the leading cities in the South. Knoxville is more urban, more industrial, better educated, more modern than most of the South's cities.
Knoxville entrepreneurs aren't shy. Though Jung's Beer advertises itself as "Knoxville's favorite for 30 years," the competing New Knoxville Brewing Company declares with confidence that it makes "the Best Beer on Earth." Among its brands is "Knoxville Bock," bottled and sold in several states.
Savvy businessmen play on the city's obvious pride. One of the tobacconist Stahl's most popular products is a cigar called "the Knox." Biddle sells a bicycle called "the Knox." His former associate Cowan Rodgers sells a model of his own called the "Chilhowee."
At the dawn of the skyscraper age, few of Knoxville's buildings are more than five stories tall, largely because all were built of masonry without steel frames. To tell which is the tallest would be a tough call. One leading candidate is the Vendome, the swanky six-story apartment building on West Clinch. Several entrepreneurs, not the least of which was the 42-year-old Jewish immigrant Max Arnstein, had plans for building something much taller.
Knoxville has several educational institutions: one of the nation's finest black colleges, a black medical school, the state's School for the Deaf, and the state university. Reading promotional material, you can't tell which one the city is proudest of. Knoxville's the regional educational center, no question. Still, one in nine Knoxvillians over the age of 10 is illiterate.
You find a pamphlet with etching portraits of people you might need to know.
William Rule, of the Journal & Tribune, wears a graying mustache and goatee. He's 61, a Union veteran, and Knoxville still calls him "Captain" Rule, though he hasn't been a soldier in 35 years. Knoxville's most prominent newspaperman, he still keeps close tabs on his favorite former typesetter, Adolph Ochs, who now runs the New York Times. One of the most prominent members of the local Grand Army of the Republicthe Union veterans' groupRule's pet project is an overdue monument to the Union dead of Knoxville. It goes up this year in the old National Cemetery, hailed as the largest such monument in the South.
Clean-shaven, short-haired Mayor Sam Heiskell is 42, one of the few city leaders since the Civil War who isn't a veteran of it. He was a Democrat, and a progressive. Dead-set against the rising tide of prohibitionism, Heiskell was even proposing that prostitution be allowed, within a certain recognized "red-light district" on the northeast side of downtown. Florida Street would become known as "Friendly Town." He's a thoughtful man, an aspiring author, but he's also armed and known for his temper.
Though she has been a widow and single mother for over 25 years, Lizzie Crozier French is still in her 40s. Founder of the women's intellectual salon known as Ossoli Circle, as well as the Women's Educational and Industrial Union, she's Knoxville's leading feminist and suffragette in 1900.
Confederate veteran Col. Charles McGhee, the old banker and railroad man, has at 72 emerged as one of Knoxville's biggest philanthropists. He's not the oldest influential businessman. "Col." Perez Dickinson, cousin of the late poet Emily, is 87. He was a Union man, if not really a colonel. From Massachusetts, he moved here early in Andrew Jackson's presidency, built the finest mansion on Main Street before establishing his Island Home up the river.
Col. Lawrence Tyson, at 39, is one of the few real colonels in town. Several years ago, he'd helped chase Geronimo across Wyoming. More recently he'd fought the Spanish and was, until last year, military governor of Puerto Rico. Now he's trying to settle into life as a textile-mill magnate.
After a rest, you want to get out and have a look around. Prince Street runs parallel to Gay by the big marble Custom House and Post Office, all the way down to the Prince Street Wharf, where most of the excursion steamboats dock. At the other end of Prince Street is Market Square. It's nearly 50 years old, and its older buildings are busy with boarding houses, clothing stores, furniture stores, groceries, saloons. But the old Square has a relatively new centerpiece: the three-year-old Market House, better known in 1900 as the New City Market. The long, brick Victorian structure is open to the public. It has high ceilings and arched windows, between which are numbers indicating individual stalls where marketers sell produce and flowers from low, sturdy tables. It's technically inside, but men tend to keep their hats on.
The ladies who put together the extravagant new Knoxville Cook Book claim this to be "the best market southwest of Norfolk" and partly accounts for "the reputation Knoxville has attained...in culinary lines."
Across the west alley is Peter Kern's fancy, big building, several years older than the markethouse. The German immigrant, a former mayor of Knoxville, runs a bakery here, but he's prouder of his candies and other confections. The bottom floor, full of bins of candies, is always busy; on the spacious second floor is Kern's Ice Cream Saloon, sometimes called the Loft, which has art on the walls and marble-top tables attended by uniformed "fountain boys." It's a favorite among UT students for an affordable but elegant date. Here you could get ice cream and soft drinks of any sort: phosphates, limeades, even "Coco-Cola."
You could walk all the way over to West Knoxville, or up to North Knoxville; just three years ago, before the controversial annexation, both were incorporated cities of their owneven though you could walk to either of them from Gay Street in less than 15 minutes. West Knoxville is the one clustered around Fort Sanders, the old earthwork you can still see there on the ridge. There's an effort to preserve it as a military park, but the idea doesn't seem to be going anywhere. West Knoxville is booming, and it's where some of the wealthiest and most powerful Knoxvillians live. William Rule lives there, on Laurel Ave., as does Lewis Hopkins Spilman, the big-shot lawyer who works with the Supreme Court in Washington. Arthur Savage, the English industrialist, lives on Highland. It's a quiet neighborhood of teas and droll "tacky parties," though crossing the Second Creek bridge sometimes requires an escort. The bottleneck attracts young thugs who enjoy intimidating single women and old people.
You might walk over there to have a look at some of the big houses on Laurel Avenue, then down to Cumberland and past the steep Hill, with its cluster of about a dozen buildings, some of them still showing scars from shelling during the War. UT's famous president lives up here with his students. Charles Dabney has quite a resume for a 45-year-old; he's an accomplished chemist and geologist, a former presidential cabinet member, a nationally influential author on education. He's been president of UT since he was 33 years old, and in that time has dumped the old military regimen, invited women to campus, and promoted the vocational education, especially engineering and agriculture, in this old liberal-arts bastion. Dabney has accomplished amazing things here, but is reportedly growing frustrated with the stingy state legislature, and considering other offers.
With an enrollment that has never approached 1,000, UT's not a bigger part of Knoxville's economy and culture in 1900 than any other big business here. UT does have a football team has been playing sporadically for almost a decade, but has never earned even a regional distinction. They wear orange and white, though the orange is a paler hue; however, they're not regularly called the Volunteers, though that's the name of UT's literary magazine. They play out at the old baseball diamond on Asylum Avenue, near the train tracks.
In 1900, UT plays teams like King College and Sewanee, and often loses. With only six games in the season, the final record is 3-2-1. Ivy-league football rivalries sometimes get more attention in the Knoxville sports pages than UT football does.
Baseball's a much more popular sport, anyway. Beside the pro Knoxville Reds, who often draw paying crowds in the thousands, teams like Maryville College, the YMCA, and Southern Railway battle for local trophies, usually either there on Asylum Avenue or out at Chilhowee Park.
A lot of folks, men and women both, are also suddenly interested in golf. There's at least one golf course in town, a nine-holer across and around Third Creek (nicknamed the Styx) within easy walking distance of Fort Sanders.
Only a few Knoxvillians play tennis, but among them is Cowan Rodgers, who holds a trophy for a southern title. You just walked past his family's house, on Cumberland near the university.
Anyway, after looking around, you'd find some supper at a restaurant, whether in the Imperial's fancy dining room where a French chef could make you a specialty like robins on toast or to a plainer place like the White Elephant or the Owl or the New Century. Most of them serve oysters, the nachos of the Victorian era. You might sit down and a waiter (more likely a waiter than waitress) might bring you a glass of New Knoxville Brewing Co.'s Knoxville Bock.
After that, you might head two more blocks on down Gay Street, past Lloyd Branson's portrait studio and Louie Seilaz's saloon and Schmid's barber shop and the Mechanics' Bank and Dan Mayo's seed store. Then cross Church and there's Spiro's cider refinery and McNabb's bowling alley and the Knoxville Journal. Then, on the corner of Cumberland, Staub's Theater. The grand old opera house seats several hundred in its gallery of multiple balconies, beneath the fresco portrait of William Shakespeare in the ceiling. Built almost 30 years ago by Swiss immigrant Peter Staub who, at 73, still lives downtown, Staub's used to be a more serious place than it is now. Anna Pavolva, the Russian ballerina, once performed here. Frederick Douglass lectured here once. Opera stars still perform here, but rarely do full operas. It's still a nice place today, but you're more likely to get vaudeville along the lines of the Cohan family's latest production. Occasionally you'll also see motion picturesoften called "cinematographs." Most films are very short, without much of a story, heavy on special effects, shown mainly for their potential to amaze, often as a small part of an otherwise live vaudeville show with singing and dancing.
If you're more daringif you had a second glass of Knoxville Bock, sayyou might just turn down Clinch, downhill between the old graveyard downhill and the radically altered residential building you wouldn't guess was James White's 1786 log cabin, to Central, the place you may have heard reformers call the most sinful place in the South outside of New Orleans. People speculate that Knoxville's Bowery got its name because of its resemblance to the one in New York.
It's a dozen blocks long, stretching all the way from the Central Avenue Wharf, where steamboats load cargo daily, to Sullivan's Saloon, up at the corner of Jackson: boarding houses, livery stables, cheap cafes, and, especially, saloons on nearly every corner, some of them piano bars, some poolhalls, some gambling dens with slot machines (in 1900, lawyers are arguing about whether slot machines were serious enough to be illegal under anti-gambling laws), some amusement arcades with shooting galleries or even knife-throwing concessions. Whiskey and rum can be had in most saloons, but beer, whether Jung's, of NKBC, or the new brand, Budweiser, is the beverage of choice. In other parts of town, saloons are strictly men only; women are allowed in a back door to buy buckets of beer for the home. The Bowery's different; most of the saloons are crowded with clusters of men and women huddled over their beer on little tables.
The strip's been busy all day, with wholesale hucksters, riverboatmen, railroad tourists, working-class blacks, immigrants. At first, it's a thrill just to walk this street. "Groups of teamsters and raftsmen from the mountains ramble among the crowd," writes one nocturnal Journal & Tribune reporter this year. "The entire street swarms with humanity, white and black" from 10 past midnight.
Blacks and whites don't mix as much in North and West Knoxville, and only a little on Gay Street. It's different in the Bowery. "The saloons and dives in the district are filled after nightfall with a motley assemblage of men and women, white and black, for the color line is very lightly regarded in most of the places, and all men are equal, so long as they have the price of a drink about them."
By 10 p.m., the sidewalks overflow into the streets as pedestrians swarm, laugh, boast, dance, shout, fight, and, too often, shoot or stab.
Saloons are supposed to close at midnight, but on the Bowery they usually don't. Saloons are supposed to be closed all day Sunday, but on the Bowery they usually aren't. Six policemen are assigned to patrol the Bowery, but they know when they're outnumbered. They're here mainly to arrest murderers. Stabbings and shootings are a nightly thing. Sometimes, especially during the holiday season, the Bowery sees a murder a day.
The police have a mascot, a little black-and-white dog called Cripple-Creek Annie, who accompanies them when they make arrests. Cripple Creek is the nickname of the adjacent residential area on the banks of First Creek, just east of the Bowery. It's said it got its name from the high rates of syphilis there. It's there, on front porches, where women sit each night, attired in "showy, gaudy, finery," as one reformer notes, and "men, young and old, from the boy of 16 to the graybeard of 60, are entering and leaving the houses, stealthily and regularly...."
People romanticize it even in 1900; the Bowery's the most interesting place to be after dark. But, as one visiting author notes, "Over all the assumed gaiety, the false glitter and tinsel of these houses, hangs a pall of shallowness, of unreality...."
There are also several drugstores on Central. Like their fancier counterparts up on Gay Street, they're open all night. On the Bowery, in fact, drugstores actually get more business late at night. That's when people get a craving for cocaine or morphine. Many customers have a seat and take it right there at the counter. These drugstores, writes the Journal & Tribune reporter, are crowded all night with "pale-faced women or girls or boys scarcely out of their teens, with bloodshot eyes and bloated features...with the tell-tale little round box of cocaine or morphine." Most are addicts, of course, but some are buying morphine to soothe their screaming babies at home. Children who live with their mothers in brothels are the lucky ones. Some babies, some with visible sores and tumors, do their screaming in the alleys, where they live. "In the vilest filth and squalor," writes the reformer, "some of them were trying to play and sing and be happy."
The safest place on the Bowery is The People's Tabernacle, at Central and Cumberland. Run by a young Englishman named Robert Bateman, the Tabernacle evangelizes while feeding and clothing the poor. Bateman is a charismatic young man with a walrus mustache. His favorite hymn is "Nearer, My God, To Thee," and he'll invite you to sing along.
You climb back up Clinch to the Imperial, if you're lucky, without getting your pocket picked or your throat cut. It's just two blocks away from the Bowery, but seems like another country. You say goodnight to the desk clerk, close your door, lock it, and think about investing in this peculiar city.
Hardly a "simpler time," in 1900 some things are much more complicated than they will be later. Take telephones. A minority of Knoxvillians, about 1,400 households, have telephones. Still, there are two competing telephone companies to serve them. Some telephone customers prefer People's Telephone and Telegraph, others favor the East Tennessee Telephone Company. If you want to be able to call everybody who has a phone, you need two lines, and two telephones, in your house.
Manners are also more complicated. If some strangers are more polite than they will be a century later, other strangers are much ruder. Bunco operators and cruel street pranks are part of daily life.
Politics seem dicier all the time; you don't get into government, or jurisprudence, or journalism, unless you can take the personal insults. The Republican party still passes for the civil-rights party here, though blacks have been growing suspicious of it for years; it's also turning into the big-business party and the conservationist party. The Democrats are, for the most part, the more conservative ones, sometimes glamorizing the Confederacy more than the actual Confederates ever did, though it has a strong progressive wing that's also popular here. Socialism is taken seriously by many, especially working-class folks who've had enough of Victorian extremes of wealth and poverty. Socialist rallies are well attended in Knoxville, some led by major figures like Eugene Debs, which attract thousands and are described without prejudice in the Republican paper. Two of Knoxville's weeklies are organized-labor papers. And there are rumors of anarchists in the shadows.
Complicating politics further by crossing party lines is the biggest issue of 1900. Though the average Knoxville adult male consumed three alcoholic drinks a day in 1900, temperance had thousands of advocates here, in the Anti-Saloon League, the WCTU, and the YMCA. Prohibition is strongly opposed by Mayor Heiskell, a Democrat.
There are also disputes concerning women's rights to vote, racial segregation, slot machines, cocaine, and rubber balls. Bouncing rubber balls, and in particular bouncing them at strangers, was a fad in 1900. When police announce they'll arrest ball bouncers, it flattens the issue.
In 1900, nothing's ever unanimous. Admiral Dewey, hero of Manila Bay, was one of America's greatest celebrities in 1900. When he remarked that his greatest hero was Admiral Farragut, the old Union commander who died 30 years ago, it got folks talking. Hadn't Farragut been born somewhere around here? The city formed a committee to look into the matter. Even that jury's hung. Three, including Gen. Lawrence Tyson, believe Farragut had been born at Lowe's Ferry, which crossed the undammed river near Concord. Oliver Perry Temple, the UT trustee, believes he'd been born at Campbell's Station.
The majority rules, and the monument goes up at Lowe's Ferry. Even Admiral Dewey himself comes to town to christen it, at the end of a steamboat flotilla down river from downtown Knoxville. Nothing in Knox County has ever been named for Farragut before Dewey's visit, but suddenly cafes and communities are springing up from downtown to the county line.
Even hair styles are complicated. Most men over 50 have mustaches, beards, sideburns, or some eccentric combination of the three; it's unlikely that any two old men would have exactly the same pattern of facial hair.
But the barber-shop sign out in front of the Imperial commands men to SHAVE, and many young men obey. The fashion among young men is to wear their hair severely short and shave their faces clean; it astonishes their elders, who think the style looks childish and undignified.
Whether it's a Golden Age depends on whom you talk to. Rich Knoxvillians live elegantly, entertaining with 16-course dinners, making frequent trips to New York and Europe. For them, 1900 is definitely a golden age, because they don't have to pay income taxes. Working people sometimes work 12 hours a day, six days a week, for the right to live in a one-room shack by the train tracks. Other working people live in bordellos on Central Avenue or Florida Street.
For the next three weeks, we'll share the century with a city that was neither Headquarters of TVA nor Home of the Vols or Gateway to the Smokies. But, somehow, it was a city proud of itself in spite of everything.