Q&A with Knoxville historian illustrates the importance of the Tennessee River to nascent Knoxville
Rivers didn't need early American cities, but the cities certainly needed rivers.
Knoxville historian Jack Neely and Hard Knox Wire editor J.J. Stambaugh lay out a fascinating history of the Tennessee River through Knoxville in their latest collaboration. And yes. It has several references to “Suttree” by Cormac McCarthy. Of course.
“Beyond in the dark the river flows in a sluggard ooze toward southern seas…. afreight with the past, dreams dispersed in the water someway, nothing ever lost.” — Cormac McCarthy, “Suttree”.
The Tennessee River doesn’t loom large in the daily lives of most contemporary Knoxville residents, but two centuries ago it was literally why there was a city here in the first place.
In fact, it’s impossible to discuss Knoxville’s history for long without the river cropping up in one way or another. In the earliest days of the community’s existence, settlers drew water from and washed in the creeks that fed the Tennessee; the river itself carried boats laden with goods hundreds of miles before ending up in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
Since then, the city’s relationship with the river has evolved steadily. It was an economic lifeline for generations, but railroads and automobiles eventually cornered the market when it came to shipping both cargo and passengers. Today, it’s a safe bet that when most people think of the “Riverfront” they’re thinking of restaurants or maybe a fireworks display; for the lucky few who can afford to belong to the yacht club, they’re maybe thinking about Labor Day weekends spent sailing with the Vol Navy.
In the latest edition of Hard Knox Histories, local historian and journalist Jack Neely discusses the ebbs and flows of Knoxville’s connection to the river with HKW’s editor, J.J. Stambaugh.
J.J.: When the first settlers arrived at the site that would be Knoxville, what role did geography — especially the Tennessee River — play in their decision to settle here? How important was the river commercially in the early days? The river, of course, was fed by numerous tributaries and creeks. How important were relatively small waterways like First Creek to the early city’s growth?
JACK: The river was elemental. It was hard to start a city without one. It was transportation, it was water for drinking and cooling, it was waste disposal. And, of course, the Tennessee reached from here into Cherokee territory, beyond into Alabama, then through West Tennessee into Kentucky, and all the way to the Ohio and the Mississippi.
When it came to locating a city, First Creek was probably as important as the Tennessee because it provided mill power. There were several mills up and down First Creek, as well as Second Creek. The two downtown creeks were the eastern and western boundaries of the city for its first 70 years or so.
The river was extremely important commercially, even though it was a mostly one-way thing. In the early days, when Knoxville was a territorial and state capital, there was a demand for liquor here, and folks apparently got so good at producing cheap whisky and brandy that they loaded flatboats with it and floated them downriver, all the way to New Orleans, where it could be sold for several times the cost. I love the fact that riverboat crewmen would bust up their rafts and sell them for hardwood in a city where there wasn’t much of it. A lot of the wooden buildings in the French Quarter, especially in the interiors, show traces of the rope holes and grooves characteristic of flatboats.