How Knoxvillians Used to Cross the Tennessee River

Chuck Allen Local History Leave a Comment


Skiers traveling up to Ober Gatlinburg via the resort’s aerial tramway probably never imagine that it was Knoxville, and not a ski resort, that was home to the very first version of that mode of transportation in the sky.

Yet in 1894, decades before Ober Gatlinburg was even a thought, the world’s first aerial cable car ferried Knoxvillians not just across, but high above the Tennessee River.

From an area then known as Longstreet Heights (now Regal Soccer Stadium on UT Campus) passengers traveled up to a height of 350 feet over the river to the area that is now the site of the Cherokee Bluff condos.

The car itself weighed 1200 lbs., carrying up to 16 people on two 1 3/8 inch cables, along a distance of 1,060 ft. Two 20 horsepower engines powered the car up to the top of the bluff, a ride that lasted about three and a half minutes. The way down took only 30 seconds with gravity providing all the force needed.

Click to read the original Scientific American article

But only months after its completion, a tragic accident sealed the fate of Knoxville’s aerial tram. On Sunday, February 18, 1894, the aerial cable snapped during a routine trip, causing the car to break in two sections in mid-air, killing one person and injuring two others when one section fell into the river.

An investigation following the accident uncovered some indication of deliberate tampering with the cable, but there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against anyone in particular. A subsequent lawsuit held the operators guilty of negligence, and the short life of this marvelous convenience and brilliant innovation was brought to a close.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll never think about going up to Ober Gatlinburg – or even just up to Cherokee Bluff – the same way again.

Photo by: Brent and MariLynn

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