Not So Tall Tales
Truth can be stranger than fiction--especially when it comes to Knoxville's urban legends.
By Jack Neely
JANUARY 25, 1999: Like most cities in the world, Knoxville is crawling with stories and statistics that are widely known, often repeated, and completely untrue.
We actually like myths, the true ones and the not-so-true ones. With this one article, we probably won't abolish any of these beliefs from the minds and hearts of Knoxvillians. We just think sometimes Knoxvillians need to be reminded that their city's plenty interesting enough without having to make anything up.
Maybe two or three times a month we get a call from someone who says they've heard there's a secret subterranean city beneath Gay Street, that it's perfectly preserved with turn-of-the-century storefronts, that homeless people, drug dealers, and sundry gnomes live down there and drink splo and shoot dice, and that Metro Pulse should look into it. Well, we have, and some of the stories are just a little bit true. But overall, Underground Knoxville is much more fun in our imagination than in reality.
This subterranean-city legend has several likely sourceswe'll get into the urban caverns in a minutebut the most specific stories affect one block of Gay Street. It's the 100 block, near the Old City. The east side of the 100 block is the only place we know of where you can actually look down into a subterranean balcony where there are lawn chairs and potted plants.
See, Gay Street was once hilly, and had an especially steep slope down the Southern rail yards. It was a busy area, and by the early 20th century there was a cluster of fairly tall buildings going down the hill on both sides of the street. However, the slope caused numerous problems for both vehicles and pedestrians, especially those coming and going from the train stationand in 1919 the city built the Gay Street Viaduct over the rail yards, effectively flattening Gay Street. In doing so, of course, they had to raise Gay Street to the second-floor level of several businesses. The old first floors became unusually well-finished basements.
Though some of the buildings on this block have been built since the viaduct went in, and others have been modified to a point that it's difficult to find traces of the old streetfront, a few do have the original doors and windows to the outsidebut that's where it ends. Beneath the asphalt of Gay Street is solid fill, thousands of tons of dirt. So there's no Underground Atlanta-style potential here. Underground Knoxville, such as it is, exists only beneath the sidewalks, and then only in little walled-off compartments. We can't say there's no World War I-era sign or lamppost down there, as we've heard about in those persistent rumorsbut the longtime tenants we've spoken with know nothing about where to find them.
Most of these stories have something to do with the river. We're willing to bet that most, if not all, the antebellum houses that exist in Knoxville within a half-mile of the river have been said to be connected to the riverbank by a secret tunnel. Some of these tunnels were allegedly used by Confederate spies; others were used by escaped slaves and abolitionists along the Underground Railroad. Whether they might have gotten mixed up on the same stormy night isn't in the folklore, but is an intriguing situation to contemplate. None of these tunnel stories are impossible, of course, but we'd sure like to see the existence of just one of these passageways proven.
When it comes to natural caverns, however, many of the subterranean legends are true. Knoxville is built on karst, a Swiss cheese of cavey limestone which occasionally looses an underground stream or opens into a sinkhole. When a sinkhole gaped open at State and Clinch in 1916, a newspaper report stated that "great caverns extend under Clinch Avenue and great distances to the east and south." When building the foundation for the Henley Street Bridge in 1929, workers found enormous caves on the downtown side that they felt obliged to fill with concrete. Of course, they couldn't fill all of them. Over the next 30 years, Henley suffered at least three cave-ins in the vicinity of Hill and Main. On one such occasion in 1936, a sinkhole swallowed a large automobile. (Skeptical? We published the photograph of it in Metro Pulse a couple of years ago.) In 1967, workers accidentally opened a cave beneath Market Street, just south of Church, which appeared to lead toward the river. The cave scenes at the end of Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree, set in downtown Knoxville in the early '50s, are at least plausible.
Cave legends are especially rife in East Knoxville, where in the 1870s a daring group of youths were said to have traveled fully three miles beneath the city before emerging in the sunlight by the river. Some caves, like one in Chilhowee Park, which was once accessible by a standard door, were eventually sealed for public safety. Stories that Knoxville's caves were used as gambling dens or hideouts for outlaws or bootleggers' warehouses are more than plausible.
The granddaddy of all Knoxville cave myths, however, is that one huge cavern stretches from Cherokee Bluffs near UT Hospital all the way underneath the river to Chilhowee Park. By one account, it was explored and described in an article that appeared in the New York Times around 1920. We didn't find that account, but in that local report about cave-ins in 1916, the sub-river cavern is described as if it were a matter of fact: "an underground passageway which extends from the bluffs on the south bank of the river below the L&N Bridge to Chilhowee Park, a distance of five miles."
A more skeptical 1935 article, however, called it a "ghost tale that is brought out of the closet every so often." Curiosity got the best of some scientists who in 1954 explored the Cherokee Bluff end of the cavernthe alleged East Knoxville entrance was already sealed upand brought along instruments to determine position and elevation. Having heard so many stories of people actually walking underneath the Tennessee River at Knoxville, one investigator remarked, "If this feat is possible, a drastic revision of geologic theory...is necessary."
What they found was a muddy, angular 450-foot-long cave which did give the illusion of going underneath the river. "The dominant feeling is one of rapid descent," the intrepid spelunkers reported. Considering the drippy ceiling, which might suggest the impression of being under water, the geologists found it easy to understand why amateurs might think they'd descended beneath a large body of water.
However, that rapid descent was masked by the slow and less noticeable ascent that came before it. The cave's net descent was only 11 feet. It bottomed out inside the bluff, 41 feet above the river's surface.
They published their results in the Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science.
Knoxville does have a dynamic and influential country-music tradition of large public performances going back at least to the 1880s. In the '20s, Knoxville's WNOX did go on the air a couple of years before Nashville's WSM. It's just possible that we had live country music on the air shortly before Nashville did. And some of the Opry's most famous performers did start on WNOX; Knoxville performer Roy Acuff, who more than any other single performer made the Opry the legend it had become by the 1940s, had previously been a regular on both of Knoxville's most popular stations, WNOX and WROL.
But WNOX's most famous show, the live noontime variety show "Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round" didn't go on the air until 1936. By then, WSM's Grand Ole Opry was over a decade old, and already regionally popular.
Could Knoxville have laid claim to the country-music industry in the same way Nashville did? Maybe, but probably not. Knoxville was indeed much closer to the homes of many of the performers who created and sustained country music during its formative years, but Nashville-area performers like "Grandfather of Country Music" Uncle Dave Macon weren't too shabby, either. Moreover, there was more money in Nashville, a bigger population and a better topography for a clear-channel radio station that could reach several cities around the country.
Contrary to popular assumptions, Knoxville didn't snooze through the critical early days of country music. It's true that most Knoxville businessmen of the '20s and '30s had little personal interest in hillbilly balladeersit's remarkably difficult to find records of early country music in Knoxville, apparently because few record keepers considered it interesting or important. However, it was pretty much the same story in Nashville, which was initially embarrassed about country music because it didn't fold in with their carefully nurtured "Athens of the South" image.
Some Knoxville entrepreneurs did indeed see country music's economic potential very early, and invested a great deal of money and energy into this unproven genre. Most notably was Sterchi Brothers Furniture, which sponsored some of the earliest country-music recordings the nation ever heard, as well as live radio shows, as early as the '20s. Sterchi's early investment is well credited by music historians. But they were inevitably outpaced by deep-pocket Nashvillians and that mammoth clear-channel WSM tower.
Knoxville's oldest memorial park is indeed the last resting place of several former Confederates, notably Col. Henry Ashby, Joseph Mabry, Peter Kern. A marble Confederate soldierhis belt buckle inscribed C.S.stands at attention over the graves of two brothers who were enlisted men during the war.
However, Old Gray's name dates to more than a decade before the Civil War. Called Gray Cemetery in 1850a name suggested by the wife of UT's President at the timeit honors Thomas Gray, the English poet. There are several Confederates buried there, for sure, but they may well be outnumbered by Unionists, including Captain William Rule and the most Unionist Unionist of all, William G. "Parson" Brownlow, the Reconstruction Governor of Tennessee. Major Eldad Cicero Camp, who shot a Confederate officer after the war, is buried here (as is the Confederate officer he shot). Old Gray is adjacent to the original National Cemetery, established by Gen. Ambrose Burnside, U.S.A., as a burial place for valiant Union troops, and is lorded over by the statue of a Union soldier.
It's certainly likely that black bears once roamed along Fourth Creek, and for all we know they may have had themselves a bear den in what's now Bearden. However, this West Knoxville community is actually named for a human. A onetime mayor of Knoxville, in fact, Marcus DeLafayette Bearden (1830-1885), a Union veteran and prominent legislator who helped establish the mental institution now known as Lakeshore.
To further confuse historians, M.D. Bearden had a much-older cousin with exactly the same name who was also intimately associated with the Bearden area. The elder Marcus DeLafayette Bearden established the paper mill for which the road is named, but died long before the area was ever called Bearden.
Simple math should abolish that idea. As big as the nation's second-largest stadium is, Neyland Stadium, packed, could hold less than a third of Knox County's residents. Take away the visitors' section, and it's even less. Take away Vol fans from outside of Knox County who come see the gamesthe thousands who come from Kingsport and Chattanooga and Clinton and Nashville and Maryville and Lebanon and Memphisand Knoxville's share of Neyland Stadium is much, much less. Absolute figures are hard to come by, but if only half of the fans who pack Neyland Stadium come from outside Knox County, it's impossible that more than one of six Knoxvillians could possibly attend any given Vols game.
The city may well seem quiet during football games, but it's probably more attributable to people staying at homeeither to watch the game on TV or merely to avoid the game trafficthan those who actually go to the game.
We first heard this unsettling rumor about Knoxville's oldest graveyard last year, and from three different sources. A prominent local physician, now deceased, has been quoted that the original graveyard was south of the church, not north; when that area was developedwith the church building itself, and the eastward extension of Church Streetthe stones, but not the remains, were moved to the present location at the corner of State and Clinch.
However, the churchyard as seen today is labeled as a cemetery in the earliest known maps of downtown, and described as being about there by travelers as early as 1799. The rumor probably stems from the fact that when the current church structure was built in 1901, it covered some old gravesites, and some gravestonespossibly without a careful reinterment of the remainswere moved to the remaining part of the graveyard. Among those in question is the grave of Knoxville founder James White. Another story we may not be able to disprove is that the gravestones were rearranged in the 1940s for the sake of appearances, and that many or most of the graves here don't mark the actual burial sites they seem to.
Whichever western spot along Kingston Pike they pick to call Knox County's population center, developers and homeowners quote it daily almost as an article of faith, often as if they're ready to show you the papers to prove it.
However, the only organization we're aware of that has studied this issue scientifically is the Metropolitan Planning Commission. They began calculating our population center in the '80s, prompted by the fact that the main post office and other services had moved from downtown to a large suburban facility in West Knoxville. At the time, some claimed the location of the new facility made sense because it was near the county's new population center. However, they didn't show their work. MPC rolled up their sleevesand discovered that despite the West Knoxville housing boom, well under way since the '70s, the population center for the countythe spot where you can stand and turn in every direction and face roughly equal numbers of Knox Countianswas still only about two miles from downtown. Northwest, to be sure, and moving westward still, but at a snail's pace of less than one mile a decade.
It may settle there, along Western near Sarge's barbecue; as it happens, that's also the county's geographical center. In any case, the population center's unlikely to make it as far west as Bearden within the lifetime of anyone who reads this, if ever.
It may well be that the center of newly built residences in Knox County is west of Bearden. And it's true that I-40 and Pellissippi have become a crossroads for a populous multi-county part of Knoxville's metropolitan area. But come on, folks; when we consider county taxpayer-funded projects, let's not forget about the over 200,000 Knox Countians who are still happy to live east of West Knoxville.
Sequoyah, the great Cherokee leader and teacher who created the first native-American alphabet, was born near Fort Loudoun in what's now Monroe County and spent most of his youth in Indian villages near there. The territorial capital called "Knoxville" was founded when he was probably a teenager, and he may well have visited this trading centerbut he never lived in Sequoyah Hills or elsewhere in the Knox County area. He left East Tennessee before 1800, living in Alabama and Arkansas, but he maintained close ties with the Cherokee Nation based in North Georgia. Sequoyah's famous newspaper, the Phoenix, was originally printed on paper purchased from Knoxville mills. Sequoyah spent much of his life wandering, and died in 1843 in northern Mexico, where he's apparently buried.
We first heard this about 10 years ago; the story went that early photographs of Looney's Bend (now Sequoyah Hills) don't show the small knoll now in the median of Cherokee Boulevard that we know as the Indian Mound. The rumor had it that around 1925, when developers wanted to add an authentic touch to a neighborhood they'd given an Indian theme, they brought in dumptrucks and deposited one (1) Acme Indian Mound conspicuously in the median of Cherokee Boulevard.
However, UT anthropology Prof. Jefferson Chapmanthe ranking authority on Indian mattersis convinced it is indeed a real, 1,000-year-old pre-Cherokee Indian mound, though badly eroded and smaller than most mounds of its kind.
Only Knoxvillians, whose patron saint has to be Eeyore, could make it sound that way. The Fair did get some negative press, much of it connected to massive housing foul-ups; and its chief sponsor, Jake Butcher, went out of business in a spectacular way with one of the greatest bank failures in American history, just three months after the Fair closed. Analysts say Butcher's problems were only tangentially related to his investment in the Fair, which, unlike most World's Fairs, actually paid its bills. And it doesn't help that at least one reference book, the 1990 Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, states that the Fair "suffered from disappointingly low attendance."
With more than 11 million visitsalmost precisely what was projectedThe 1982 World's Fair remains, in fact, one of the most popular World's Fairs in America in the last 50 years, second only to the New York World's Fair of 1964. The failure may have been that we haven't been able to make more of its momentum.
Some people insist they even remember seeing the film crews at work on Robert Mitchum's classic bootlegging opus. But that scruffy little city you see in the black-and-white background is not Knoxville, but Asheville, N.C. The filming's location is painfully obvious in one scene set in downtown Memphis, where Luke Doolin is going to meet the mob boss, and walks past the Asheville Pharmacy.
To make things worse, none of the action in Thunder Road is even specifically set here. The bootleggers who are the heroes of the story live in eastern Kentucky. They do mention Knoxville in passing, but then they drive their loads all the way to Memphis.
Robert Mitchum's hit song, "Thunder Road," which was nationally popular at the time of the movie, does mention Knoxville, as well as Maynardville and Bearden. In fact, the climactic crackup takes place "out on Kingston Pike." Mitchum's inspiration to write the song and the movie is a mystery; Mitchum himself declined to shed any light on the subject to a historian who set out to write a book, Return to Thunder Road, about it.
The movie script, by contrast, is vague about where Doolin's fatal accident happened, and though the movie opens with part of Mitchum's ballad, the Knoxville parts are never heard on the film.
When over-40 types tell you they remember when Thunder Road was filmed in Knoxville, they may be recalling a very different movie called All the Way Home, which was filmed here about four years later.
You hear that a lot, especially from newcomers who haven't found their way around yet. It was Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken who coined the term "Bible Belt" in the 1920s, and he wasn't being nice about it. He sometimes embellished his phrase with other modifiers, rendering it as "the Bible and Hookworm Belt" or "the Bible and Lynching Belt." He was usually referring to rural areas where, he said, "Baptist and Methodist barbarism" reigned. Mencken may never have mentioned that his Bible Belt might have a "buckle" per se, but he once remarked that its "heart" was Jackson, Miss.
Cultural geographers have since described the Bible Belt much more scientifically than Mencken ever did, outlining it as a huge area stretching from the Outer Banks to central New Mexico. From these later reporters, the first reference we've found to "the Buckle of the Bible Belt" was in a 1976 article in the Geographic Review, which echoed Mencken: "Jackson, Miss., could perhaps be called the buckle of the Bible Belt."
Located right between the real Buckle of the Bible Belt and Mencken's hometown, Knoxville may not have suffered some of the extremes that Mencken condemned in the Bible Beltbut on the other hand, we would probably not have impressed Mencken enough to describe Knoxville as an unusual exception. Still, those of us who have actually lived in Jacksonwhere, as recently as 1980, some major-network TV shows were blacked out due to contentknow what living in a Bible Belt Buckle is really like.
The controversial director of movies like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown was indeed born in Knoxville in the early '60s and spent a couple of years of his early childhood here.
And he did work at a video store before he became a successful director. Only not one in Tennessee. Tarantino has not lived in Knoxville since the '60s, and we're not sure he has even been back to visitbut he pays homage to his birthplace with allusions in his movies, notably Pulp Fiction, in which both Christopher Walken and Bruce Willis refer to Knoxville in very different contexts.
If it were downtown, that probably wouldn't be a myth; it's probably safe to say that a solid half of the buildings downtown that are at least 75 years old housed ladies of the evening at one time or another. However, the western end of Cumberland Avenue was originally a quiet, conservative residential neighborhood. The building that houses the Longbranch was built as a family home, but from about 1964 to 1992, it served as Mary Gill's Dress Shop.
Of course, the myth is a natural for a place called the Longbranch. Opened across the street in the early '70s, it was originally named for the watering hole on the TV series Gunsmoke. That was a family show, of course, but most folks eventually figured out what Miss Kitty did for a living.
However, the origin of this myth is much more interesting than that. See, Mary Gill's wasn't your typical dress shop. The upscale boutique was open by appointment only. Sequoyah Hills ladies would arrive in chauffeur-driven Cadillacs, come inside and strip to their underwear, then spend the afternoon being waited on, trying on different ensembles. If the ladies desired, Mary Gill would serve them white wine or sherry while they waited. Her assistant, Martin Hunt, recalls the day when a regular customer appeared, stripped to her pantyhose, and drank two or three glasses of sherry, as Hunt brought her dresses for her to try on.
While Hunt answered a phone call from a fashion house in New York, three college girls appeared and knocked on the front door insistently. Confident that they couldn't get in, Hunt remained on the phone. However, his tipsy customer, wearing only pantyhose, decided to be helpful, and answered the door. "What time is your appointment?" she asked, holding a glass of sherry in one hand and a cigarette holder in the other. The girls did not linger, but the story made the rounds of 7th Ave. in New York and even appeared in the pages of Women's Wear Daily.
A different version of it made its way around UT, where a trip to this elegant dress shop became a fraternity dare. Hunt says they'd get calls or visits almost weekly from pimply college boys who'd typically ask, "What are your prices?"
This was Hunt's favorite part of the conversation. "Well, our prices range from $200 up to $7,000." That usually ended the conversation, but it only fed the legend.
This misconception afflicts mainly tourists and fresh-off-the-bus newcomers with Goldfingeresque daydreams of living near roomsful of gold bullion. Sure enough, they're both in the general Tennessee-Kentucky area, and they're both named after the same guy, Washington's Secretary of War Henry Knoxwho, incidentally, never visited either site. However, Fort Knox is in northwestern Kentucky, outside of Louisville, not far from the Ohio River and the Indiana state line (that's maybe a five-hour drive from Knoxville). And we hear they don't even keep gold there anymore. Is it worth a day trip? Well, size up the tourist and think before you answer. In some cases, that answer may be yes.
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