Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Voyage to the Bottom of the River

Imagine draining the Tennessee River--here's what you'd find.

By Jack Neely

MAY 24, 1999: 

He could hear the river talking softly beneath him.... Beneath the sliding water cannons and carriages, trunnions seized and rusting in the mud, keelboats rotted to the consistency of mucilage...a thick muck shot with broken glass, with bones and rusted tins and bits of crockery reticulate with mudblack crazings.
—Cormac McCarthy, Suttree

For over two centuries, it has been Knoxville's most familiar companion. It's always there, right next to downtown, UT, and several of the most popular residential neighborhoods in Knox County. Every day, tens of thousands of us drive alongside and across it. Every year, hundreds steer motorboats through this opaque water. From the shore, some fish in it. On weekends, some even jet-ski in it. We dump our sewage and industrial wastes into it. We even drink and bathe in water from the Tennessee River.

But what's down there? No one knows.

It's unlikely we'll ever see the bottom, even in a dry season, even if TVA shut off the upstream dams and opened all the spillways at Fort Loudoun Dam. But if the Chinese Brother who could swallow the sea contracted out to do the same for the Tennessee River, you might see a deeply pitted slope of mud and rocks that dips gently for 50 or 100 yards from shore, then rapidly descends into a sort of gulley, maybe 20 to 35 feet deep. And, on the south side, a rocky ledge.

You'd also see some cans and bottles and algae and waterlogged trees and large black planks of unknown origin. Beneath the cliffs, of course, there are some big rocks. You'd see some trash: cans, bottles, 50-gallon drums. You'd see flopping carp and catfish and maybe some striped bass, and you'd see a few good-sized mussels but lots more small yellowish clams.

You might not see anything else right away. But maybe, as you slogged around in the muck, you'd stumble over ancient things: some bedsprings. A stolen Studebaker. An old refrigerator. Several Confederate cannons. A battered grocery cart. The remains of a couple of Victorian sternwheelers. Some worn radial tires. Maybe even a Union gunboat.

Whatever else there might be on the bottom, there are stories down there.

Diving the Tennessee in Knoxville is an extreme sport. Those who have ever tried it are few—almost certainly fewer than a dozen, a couple of divers estimate. The water is "zero viz" as divers say. Sometimes only 10 feet beneath the surface there's not even any discernible light. Everything's black. And it goes down, in spots, as deep as six fathoms.

The water is polluted and parts of the bottom are cluttered with invisible obstacles and garbage, some of it sharp. The traffic of motorboats, barges, and the riverboat make the existing currents—which are more obvious underwater than they are from the shore—even more hazardous. Add to that the fact that salvage diving is illegal here, these waters being technically part of TVA's reservoir, and therefore federal property. It's not easy to dive here, and there's not much of a motive to.

We weren't able to locate anyone who has ever dived in the city-limits part of the river who didn't do so with a serious and necessary purpose.

Jeff Weaver is a member of the elite fraternity of professional divers who have ever touched underwater Knoxville. Built like a college wrestler, Weaver is an athlete, and as task-oriented as a rescue diver needs to be. When somebody jumps from a bridge, he goes in.

He dives with his eyes shut, just to avoid the disorientation of looking without seeing, and feels his way along the bottom. "You're running on Braille," he says. "It's all touch." He often encounters objects down there—maybe big rocks, maybe 50-gallon drums, maybe a waterlogged tree. "Every time it floods," Weaver says, "there's a different tree down there." Maybe the large objects he encounters are something else. But if it's not the body or the weapon he's looking for, he leaves it alone.

On a rescue detail, divers don't have time to poke around, bring up anything that seems interesting. But sometimes they find debris they can't easily ignore. Sometimes, Weaver says, "you go down and say, 'dadgum, there's a car down here.'"

Diving for the wreckage of a fatal plane crash near Island Home a couple of years ago, they found most of the wreckage they were looking for, fuselage, wings, seats. But they also found a late-model Nissan Pathfinder. And a motorcycle. Both were apparently stolen, both apparently dumped off the South Knoxville Bridge some months or years before. When they find a car, Weaver says, "You call the police. It helps them solve crimes. And you always check the trunk. No telling what you'll find in the trunk."

Landlubbers are amazed at what they do. But Weaver and his colleagues can deal with polluted water, utter darkness, dead victims. What Weaver really hates is fishing line. There's lots of it down there, and when he gets tangled in fishing line, he sometimes has to remove his gear underwater to free himself.

The Holston River in East Knoxville is a little more diver-friendly than the Tennessee, and sometimes allows two or three feet of visibility. Weaver's colleague Rick Crews has been diving in our rivers for 26 years now. His pals call him Wormie, but don't say why. He's found all sorts of things: boomboxes, safe-deposit boxes, bicycle frames. He's even been called to retrieve eyeglasses and dentures. "We're two for three on false teeth," he says.

Once diving near Boyd's Bridge on the Holston, a favorite dumping spot, rescue diver Crews was looking for a jumper. The call turned out to be a prank, but on the bottom he was astonished to see several guns—rifles and shotguns, plus a pistol, most of them badly corroded. During his search, he picked up and swam around with one of the more interesting-looking rifles, but finally replaced it on the bottom, confident he could come back and retrieve it later.

Crews returned on his own to the precise spot where he'd seen the guns, and they had all disappeared. Instead, he found a fireplace mantel with a horseshoe nailed to it; he salvaged the horseshoe. Crews cites it as an example of how currents and the changing face of the river bottom can conceal and disclose objects down there.

Crews has done some sport diving in the Holston, and is particularly interested in an area in Strawberry Plains where there was supposedly a railroad bridge site rumored to be rich in Civil War relics. Diving near Boyd's Bridge on another occasion, Crews found a good-sized corroded steel safe, old-fashioned in design and extremely heavy. It took four divers to raise it. They'd hardly gotten it to the surface before they observed the bottom had been cut out and its contents removed. They let it sink back to the bottom.

"Under bridges, it's like a junkyard," Crews says, but Weaver adds it's moreso under some bridges than others. Dumpers seem to prefer the South Knoxville Bridge, a mile away from the lights and traffic of downtown. Suicides aren't as furtive.

Whether it's bodies or weapons they're looking for, divers almost always concentrate their searches near the bridges and maybe a few hundred yards downstream. There are parts of the river, even familiar parts, no diver has ever touched.

Some swear confidently that TVA knows "every square inch" of the bottom of the river. But except for some spot sonar topographical charting and a few ad-hoc diving expeditions, TVA leaves the bottom alone. TVA's main concern with the bottom of the river is monitoring pollution and keeping the channel navigable. The Nashville-based Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the actual dredging; their usual standard for river traffic is keeping a channel at least nine feet deep. Early on, TVA worried about that depth and talked the Corps into dredging TVA channels to a minimum of 11 feet.

They don't have to dredge very often. Most of the channel is much deeper than that, anyway. They hardly ever have to dredge the water downtown, maybe once every 10 or 15 years, and when they do it's usually to clear tributary sediment at the mouths of First and Second Creeks. A lot of sediment comes down Third Creek, too, but the river's so deep there it's not a problem.

When the Corps dredges Knox County waters, which they did most recently in 1997, they tend to do most of it at two spots. One is old Post Oak Island, an island near Concord drowned by Fort Loudoun Lake which still makes a partial appearance in the winter months, when waters recede. The other is at Looney Island, which is off the coast of Sequoyah Hills. That island, which was allegedly formed by silt from urban development about a century ago, is still the biggest silt accumulator in the county. The Corps has to sail up here and dredge it out every four years or so. They rely mainly on a dredger with clamshell-type shovel mounted on a crane. They dredge the channel and load the sediment onto a dump scow, then replace the sediment somewhere out of reach of the channel.

Ray Bess, who keeps office hours in Nashville, is one of the Corps' dredgers, and is impressed with Knoxville's sediment. "It's a highly organic silt," he says. "I wish I could bring it home and put it in my yard. It's real good topsoil—construction runoff and leaves, a lot of stuff down from the mountains. I wish there were some way we could get in there and harvest it."

The water—and silt—that flows past Knoxville daily represents contributions from a huge area including most of the Great Smoky Mountains, a large section of Western North Carolina, and a good chunk of Southwestern Virginia.

Bess says the Tennessee is different from some other rivers he dredges, like the Ohio, where the sandy bottom changes shape. The Tennessee has an old, established, mud-and-rock channel that never changes.

The bottom is 99 percent clay and silt. TVA classifies a sediment as "silt" when its particles are too small—less than 60 microns—to be classified as fine sand. TVA analyses show that the organic material is between five and 10 percent, a little more than you'd find in a typical field. The rest is composed of fine mineral particles.

The urban Tennessee River is indeed polluted from a wide variety of sources. Nonetheless, it's a habitat. At the dock near the mouth of First Creek where the Star of Knoxville ties up, dozens of large carp crowd the surface for every dropped crumb. The fishermen who cast lines from the banks near UT and along Sequoyah Park aren't angling for garbagemouth carp, but for catfish and striped bass: stripers, as they're known. Stories of catfish upwards of 30 pounds living in city-limits Knoxville keep them interested. This, in spite of the fact that fishermen aren't supposed to eat catfish or any fish weighing more than two pounds due to likely contamination from the long-banned industrial waste Polychlorinated Bephenyl, or PCB, which can cause cancer. There are only traces of it in the water; a TVA silt sample taken near Concord detected only 27 parts per billion. But they say even that's something to be concerned about.

Another concern is chordane, an insecticide used to treat houses for termites and, like most insecticides, also toxic to humans; it was banned because it deteriorates very slowly. Chlordane is slightly more frequent than PCBs in the bottom of Fort Loudoun Lake, at rates of 29 or 30 parts per billion. Other toxic historic relics include lead, which was until the '80s present in most gasoline, and, of course, it's still there in the bottom, at 30-35 parts per billion.

Both of those poisons have been banned since the '70s, but they're still there, and probably will be for the rest of our lives. They've joined the other historic relics at the bottom of the river.

Perhaps surprisingly, all of our sources say the Knoxville stretch of the river isn't especially trashy. Some rural areas, where river dumping is a long-established custom, are much worse. Ijams Director Bo Townsend, who has hosted annual riverfront cleanups for several years, is heartened that they're now finding much less trash in the river than they were only a decade ago. But there are still some junky areas, like under bridges and at the mouths of creeks. The mouth of Second Creek, near UT, is especially notorious for garbage. Some washes down the long, sometimes-flooded creek, of course, but this also happens to be the preferred wharf of the Vol Navy. Divers say there's lots of Vol party garbage down there, even deck furniture.

The upper Tennessee River system was once North America's most diverse habitat for mussels, with more than 100 estimated species. The bivalve shellfish still thrive in some tributaries, like the Clinch. There's abundant evidence that prehistoric, pre-Cherokee Native American communities in and near what's now Knox County lived luxuriantly on mussels Indian divers plucked from the river bottom.

Today, most of them are gone, victims of pollution and the impoundment of the river, which makes survival difficult for many species. But there are a few. TVA biologist Gary Hickman did some diving in the river in the vicinity of First Creek a couple of years ago to gauge the environmental impact of riverfront development there. He found a dozen or more mussels of three different species: the large, humpbacked "heelsplitter," some of them as big as your hand. He also found some large, flat, "elephant ear" mussels, as well as some thin-shelled, rounded shellfish called "floaters."

But Hickman, accustomed to the abundance of mussels elsewhere in East Tennessee where a single dive might turn up hundreds, calls this population "sparse." Because of both pollution and the impoundment of the lakes, species diversity of mussels has declined at an alarming rate throughout the river system, and the river in Knox County is no longer considered a significant community of them. On that Volunteer Landing dive, they actually found no mussels at all downstream from the mouth of polluted First Creek.

On another dive farther upstream still, at the mouth of the French Broad, Hickman found significant numbers of zebra mussels, European immigrants that threaten to squeeze out native American species nationwide.

But far more abundant than any mussel in Knoxville's waters are some other foreign invaders: the Asian clam. Unknown in America before the 1930s, the small, round, greenish-yellow bivalve invaded America via Washington State as part of some ill-conceived idea to feed game fish. The clams spread rapidly across the country. Today, the Asian clam is the most common shellfish here; its shells litter the shores up and down the riverfront.

One TVA representative told us confidently there are no sunken ships in Knoxville. "It's too shallow," he says. Knoxville's river is much shallower than some stretches farther downstream, past where many other rivers join the Tennessee. But still, even here, there are trenches down there where the river's depth descends to 35 feet or more. That's deeper than the full fathom five where Shakespeare placed a drowned man's skeleton in The Tempest.

If there are any human remains at the bottom of the river, they're probably not recent. The rescue squad says they find 80-90 percent of the bodies they look for, and that all the others eventually rise to the surface somewhere. (The only body they've been unable to retrieve in recent years was not in the river but in a flooded and impossibly deep East Knox County mine.) Gay Street jumpers have turned up as far downstream as Tooles Bend, but they always turn up somewhere, and with the riverbanks so heavily populated, chances are someone will see them before further decomposition sends them back to the bottom.

Which was likely the fate of many suicides and murder victims in the more distant past. Bodies have been dumped in the river since the 1790s, many of them attributed to the murderous Harpe brothers who were known to weight their victims to keep them down. Even the old-time standard "Knoxville Girl" is about dumping a body in the river here. Some Union soldiers reportedly drowned in the river downtown while retreating from an anticipated Confederate attack during the siege in 1863. Stories of massive drownings during the Great Flood of 1867 are almost apocalyptic. People have been jumping and falling off Knoxville bridges and docks for generations. A staff poet for the Knoxville Journal gazed at the river downtown in 1934 and wrote of the countless numbers who drowned there: "It is impossible to tell of those who snatched a last glimpse of the world, a blue patch of sky floating serenely above the merciless yellow waters that strangled them."

It's a safe bet that not all the murder victims, accidental drowning casualties, and suicides in the river have been retrieved. But last month, when three skulls and numerous other human bones turned up in Sevier County on the banks of the French Broad, they were assumed to be robbed from Indian graves.

Indian relics—ancient arrowheads, especially—aren't uncommon finds along the riverbanks, and it's likely there are thousands of them along the bottom. Most are believed to date from pre-Cherokee peoples who lived here more than 500 years ago. Stories circulate about dredgers using a vacuum-style hose to sweep the bottom of Fort Loudoun Lake, only to have it repeatedly clogged by Indian artifacts.

That Suttree quote refers to an old story about the Confederate siege of Knoxville in 1863. Under the command of Gen. Longstreet's artillery chief Porter Alexander, Capt. William Parker floated some 34 cannons and mortars across the river, hauled them to the top of Cherokee Bluff, and attempted to shell Knoxville's Union installations. But his range was too great to do serious damage, and as the siege began to fall apart, Parker dumped his big guns off the bluffs, 200 feet down to the river. Better at the bottom of the channel, they figured, than in enemy hands. A postwar generation of Knoxvillians knew those cliffs, perhaps with some irony, as "Longstreet's Heights."

That story, confirmed by contemporary reports, is apparently true; but to would-be scavengers it might as well not be. Capt. Parker's cannons went into one of the deepest spots on this stretch of the river, and might have buried themselves deep in the silt within seconds of hitting the bottom. That was 135 years ago. By now, Capt. Parker's cannons may be impossibly deep beneath the river bottom.

Legend and evidence rarely intersect. Which isn't to say that the legends aren't perfectly true.

Another, murkier Civil War story has to do with tales of a Union gunboat on the bottom at the mouth of First Creek. A prominent attorney recalls in great detail news stories of a dredging expedition in the '60s which recovered artillery canisters from the bottom: canister shot, 10- and 20-pound Parrott rounds—small cannonballs, and grapeshot, some of them boxed. He speculates that what was dredged up was the rotten deck of a Union boat, whether a steam-driven gunboat or a supply barge, he's not sure. He thinks he even recalls the name of it: Star of the East.

We weren't able to find anyone else who recalls that story or knows the fate of the artifacts. It might at first seem implausible. You just don't picture gunboats in Knoxville. If there was naval support during the siege of Knoxville in 1863, there aren't handy records of it. But in newspaper interviews decades later, some locals remembered them: "Lincoln gunboats," as they were known hereabouts. Not many, but a few chugged up toward Knoxville and back, patrolling these Unionist waters. The largest was known as the Clinch. The gunners on the Clinch even took potshots at Blount County barns when they thought they could get away with it.

The sunken-gunboat story may or may not be true. Other stories of commercial steamboats that hit bottom in Knoxville are better documented.

The Onega was a swift commercial steamboat for the Three Rivers Packet Co. that in its heyday made 90 trips a year upstream to Dandridge. It was at its wharf on the south side when, in 1901, a storm swept it away. It went down, just upstream from the relatively new Gay Street Bridge. A salvage crew brought up the sternwheeler's boiler, but Morton Rose, whose grandfather was president of the company that sponsored the Onega, speculates that part of the steamboat may still be down there somewhere.

One national registry of shipwrecks records that the riverboat Annabell King went down almost 90 years ago shortly after leaving the Knoxville wharf and is still a "shipwreck." The book doesn't specify the position of the sternwheeler which was one of Knoxville's last commercial steamboats, but contemporary news reports suggest whatever remains of it would be somewhere downstream from the Alcoa Highway bridge, perhaps as far down as Looney Island. In its heyday, the Annabell King had been the sort of ship that carried Sunday-afternoon boating parties of men in derbies and women with parasols; but in later, more pragmatic times, it was converted to industrial purposes, carrying loads of salt and flour to ports downstream. In the pre-dawn darkness of a morning in late 1911, the Annabell King struck a pier to the old bridge that once ran between Kingston Pike and the peninsula on the opposite side. It sank in shallow water; the owner, who had named the ship for his young daughter, salvaged parts of the sternwheeler and was initially hopeful that the Annabell King could be raised, but it apparently never was. That much we know. Whether anything might be left of the sternwheeler in the muck just upstream from Sequoyah Hills, we can't prove.

Another story, possibly another version of that the Annabell King saga, has it that early in the century a riverboat went down in a bend of the river just west of town. Its pilot was a man named Wooliver, and that for years afterward, that stretch of the river was known on river charts as "Wooliver's Bend." Local historians have never been able to confirm that one.

There have been other sinkings in or near Knox County, some of which we know only obliquely—like the Water Lily, which sank in the 1880s, in what's now Fort Loudoun Lake in the vicinity of Concord and Louisville. As late as the 1960s, a Knoxville Sand & Gravel towboat went down in Fort Loudoun Lake and was never recovered. Another shipwreck, probably downstream of Fort Loudoun, was a steamboat called the Mary Byrd, sunk in deep water and apparently never recovered. Still another vehicle that went down in the Loudon area wasn't a boat at all, but a locomotive deliberately toppled from a bridge during the Civil War. It has never been located.

Numerous shipwrecks up and down the Tennessee River may be matters somewhere between rumor and record. If they're not a navigational hazard, TVA officials say, there's no reason to go to the trouble of investigating them and charting them on a map. It's assumed that some of these wrecks have been "dredged apart" over the years, or broken by the better-kept hulls of later barges, or dispersed by pre-TVA floods, or just rotted away, leaving, perhaps, only a rusted boiler and some nails. Still, old wooden barges, made of hewn timbers bolted together, turn up occasionally. If they're in the silt, protected from the ruinous effects of oxygen, they can last for centuries. In other parts of the river, antique waterlogged timbers from long-ago logging rafts have been salvaged as handsome hardwood. Just last month, a local businessman saw part of an old wooden barge half-sunken in the water near the mouth of First Creek.

If you happen to be dredging around in the river and find a great timber down there, it's not necessarily from a ship. We've also lost some bridges over the years; a few of them went crashing into the water. Around the piers of the Gay Street Bridge, there may be some remnant of the wooden bridge that a tornado blew down in 1875. A still earlier bridge was washed away by a flood. A later bridge, a Victorian-era addition downstream from Alcoa Highway, was dismantled around 1940; its connections are still visible on the shore, and parts of its original piers may still be underwater.

Of course, in the wider parts of Fort Loudoun Lake, around Concord, there are lots of submerged remnants of farmhouses and roads. There aren't many architectural remnants underwater in Knoxville proper, where the river's breadth and depth didn't change much. But there are a few.

Downtown, First Creek is nearly forgotten, entombed beneath James White Parkway, but its mouth, more convenient than ever from Volunteer Landing, is still as broad as some "rivers." On its left bank, as it flows into the Tennessee, are the ruins of a building of some sort. In the wintertime, and only then, you can see them: eroded wooden bulkheads held together with iron spikes onto pilings in the sand at the water's edge. Presently, they're underwater; we won't be able to see them again until the fall.

An archaeological team working for TVA and the city of Knoxville studied the site for historical traces that might have doomed the federally funded riverfront development. They were looking for a riverside salt warehouse, circa 1790, built by the same King for whom Kingsport was named. "That eluded us," says TVA archaeologist Danny Olinger. "But we did find a number of other things there." Among them were broken antebellum-era ceramics, and those wooden bulkheads on the wintertime shore.

The archaeological team identified them as the ruins of the Davis & Sussong grain warehouse built in the early 1900s, one of several riverside companies that stored their goods on the wharves where they shipped them. Olinger estimates it was destroyed before 1930, perhaps by a flood.

What's down there? We still don't know. But it seems clear that if you go underwater, you'll find things. And, if the experience of rescue divers and archaeologists is any guide, probably some things other than what you're looking for.


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