I first met Knoxville two years ago following a family junket to the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most visited nature preserve, and the fringe towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Before flying home from Knoxville, we spent a few hours vetting this unique East Tennessee anchor city and, well before plane-time, I was hankering for a longer look.
The Annual Dogwood Arts Festival Offers Glorious Hiking and Biking Trails – Photo courtesy of Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation
The chance came this April and timing was perfect. The Knoxville area was busting out all over for its month-long 51st Dogwood Arts Festival. Seasonal white flowery patches dotted rolling hills along Alcoa highway into town from the airport, further enhancing a picturesque outback. And I knew 60 miles of breathtakingly landscaped Dogwood Trails in the suburbs were also awaiting inspection.
Recalling something learned on the prior visit, I headed straight for the downtown Visitor Center on South Gay Street, one of Knoxville’s most historic thoroughfares. It shrewdly combines under one roof a roster of services invaluable for rookie visitors: a team of Knoxville Tourism and Sports Corporation (KTSC) personnel, a gift shop stocked with regional arts and crafts and a self-service coffee, sandwich and pastry parlor with plenty of tables and chairs.
Also onsite are broadcast facilities of local radio station WDVX-FM 89.9, which airs country, mountain and bluegrass folk music, swing and blues. During lunch-time Monday through Saturday, tourists and townspeople alike enjoy WDVX’s “Blue Plate Special,” a free live concert by musicians performing in town at the time. It’s an ideal backdrop for gathering information to help decide what to see and how to do so without a hitch.
Susan Gibson Singing at Visitor Center’s WDVX “Blue Plate Special” – Photo by Jeff Corydon
Once briefed by KTSC, I went to check out what sets Knoxville off from its sister “micropolises” of Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga. Its secret, I concluded, is the subtle three-dimensional charm of a refreshing natural environment, rich historical past and well-rounded arts and cultural program. (N.B: I arrived at the Visitor Center with “folky Americana” artist Susan Gibson crooning “You Came Along,” but Beethoven’s Ninth, performed in magnificently restored art-deco Tennessee Theatre by Knoxville’s Symphony Orchestra and Choral Society, was what capped my four day stay!)
This urban sampler of Tennessee’s natural legacy and lifestyle, blessed with gateway proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is fully up to date, but unpretentious, just happy to be itself. It is also deeply traditional, given to preserving what industrious forebears have created. When all is said, Knoxville, more than any other city, strikes me as the real Tennessee.
James White’s Fort was the First U.S. Settlement Outside the 13 Colonies
Visitors should be sure to tour what’s called James White’s Fort, at the edge of downtown, replicating log cabins of legendary founder, Irishman James White. In 1783 he crossed the Appalachians from North Carolina with land grants for his Revolutionary War service and eventually staked a claim to 1,000 acres right about here. His was the first permanent U.S. settlement in territory outside the 13 original colonies.
In 1791, White surrendered 30 acres to the Federal Government as site for a new capital of what was then called the “Territory South of the Ohio River.” It was dubbed Knoxville after President Washington’s Secretary of War, Henry Knox. Five years later, Tennessee was carved out of this Territory and admitted as our 16th state. It remained the state capital until replaced in 1812 by more centrally located Nashville.
The world’s Largest Basketball at Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame – Photo by Jeff Corydon
Downhill and across a broad avenue from the fort are several more modern buildings. The newest is the elaborate Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, opened in 1994 and proudly identified by an enormous basketball suspended over a makeshift basket and net at one entrance. Made of fiberglass, and weighing 10 tons, it’s billed as the world’s largest. The Hall sprouted here partly because Knoxville boasts the main campus of University of Tennessee, a perennial mainstay in NCAA basketball competition. Another factor is the iconic career of UT women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, sole coach in the history of American men’s and women’s basketball with over a thousand wins. She was enshrined by the Hall five years after the opening, and still coaches the UT women’s team. So far 120 women have been similarly honored, and six more outstanding players or major contributors to the game are inducted every year.
The Sunsphere was the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair’s Signature Structure – Photo by Jeff Corydon
Almost due west across downtown from the Hall of Fame is a complex of buildings left from Knoxville’s 1982 International Exposition, or World’s Fair. The tallest, a girder-like tower topped by a gleaming gold-ribbed globe known as the Sunsphere, was the Fair’s signature structure. It somehow echoes the Hall of Fame’s basketball, but is many times larger. It overlooks a sizable reflecting pool and an expanse of “performance lawn” that stretches away toward downtown. Like the Eiffel Tower spawned by Paris’s 1889 World’s Fair, the Sunsphere now serves as the favorite observation deck for tourists’ 360-degree viewing and photographing of the surrounding city. The speedy elevators to its different levels operate daily.
An absolutely essential stop for serious Knoxville visitors is the East Tennessee History Center, back on South Gay Street three blocks from the Visitor Center. Here one explores the colorful past that helps explain East Tennessee’s distinctive character. The museum’s Civil War film, “Voices of the Land,” sagely notes: “Most Tennesseans came from a divided family somewhere along the way.” It was dramatically true during the Civil War. Although Tennessee ultimately lined up with the Confederacy, its people had sharply divided loyalties– nowhere more pronounced than in East Tennessee, and particularly Knoxville, the regional capital. This dichotomy has strongly influenced the area’s entire history since white Europeans first challenged the Cherokees in the 1700s for control of what had been for centuries Native American hunting grounds.
The Tennessee Theatre’s Lush Auditorium was Recently Refurbished – Photo courtesy of Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation
So it was that, when Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861 by a two-thirds majority statewide, East Tennessee’s citizens voted against secession by a two-thirds majority. East Tennessee’s representative in the U.S. Congress, an outspoken Unionist, actually kept his seat throughout the Civil War, even as another East Tennessean represented the region in the Confederate Congress. The History Center’s Civil War exhibit highlights how President Lincoln chose East Tennessean Andrew Johnson to be his running mate in 1864, and how, after Johnson became president, Tennessee was the first seceded state readmitted to the Union in 1866. This spared Tennessee the turmoil other Southern states suffered during Reconstruction.
Thinking again of Knoxville’s refreshing natural ambiance, I must add a few words about quaint Market Square, around the corner from the East Tennessee Museum of History in downtown’s heart. Knoxville’s genius for distinguishing what’s right from what’s fashionable or convenient has preserved this park-like oasis of greenery for the pleasure of all who live and work in the city, as well as visitors. Its periphery now abounds in fascinating offbeat boutiques and restaurants of all sizes, ethnic origins and culinary inclinations.
The positive impact of having spared these dozen or so city blocks from intense urban development helps keep the theme of thinking green at center stage in Knoxville. By accommodating myriad events like farmers’ markets and Dogwood Festival’s art show centerpiece, and by simply “being there” 24-7 to offer folks who inhabit and patronize the city center easy access to a breath of fresh air, Market Square contributes significantly to local quality of life.
Every American city with a population comparable to Knoxville’s (about 180,000) ought to have something like it!
Downtown Market Square Hosts Farmer’s Markets Throughout the Year – Photo courtesy of Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation
MORE INFORMATION AVAILABLE FROM:
Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation, www.Knoxville.org
Knoxville Visitor & Resource Guide, www.Knoxville.org, (800) 727-8045
James White’s Fort, jameswhitefort.org
Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, www.WBHOF.com
East Tennessee Historical Center , www.eastTNhistory.org
Market Square District Association, knoxvillemarketsquare.com
Knoxville restaurants, accommodations, attractions, www.touchknowandgo.com