I have lived here, in Knoxville, pretty much my whole life. Yet, I still don’t quite know what all goes into making Knoxville the city that it is. But, like everyone else, I have my opinions on the subject.
First, and foremost, its people make Knoxville Knoxville. We, the people, are an increasingly diverse group of people. Now, we hail from all parts of the world. But, that wasn’t always so. Originally, we were pretty insular, with our ancestors coming from Europe by way of the Carolinas.
For a long time, we were nothing more than a small, almost forgotten town along side the Tennessee River. Frequently flooded and equally dependent upon the river and the surrounding countryside for our survival.
Our area, the reflection of millions of years of change, reflects a wonderful diversity: flora and fauna often amazing in its splendor, some of the world’s oldest existing mountains (which, if you haven’t noticed, are still here), and an important American Indian culture all but wiped out by the white man’s greed for land.
Settled by peoples from Scotland, Ireland of Celtic and Germanic heritage, used to living on hard lands, the settler’s of East and became self-sufficient and very stubborn. And, eventually became an important part of a young country’s history.
During the War Between the States, noted civil war historian Bruce Catton called the East Tennessee area the keystone to the downfall of the South — not just because of the strong Union sympathies of its people, but because East Tennessee was a key supplier of many supplies needed by the South and because it was a significant transportation hub between north and south. The linchpin to that keystone was the siege of Knoxville and its eventual downfall in 1863.
Still, Knoxville kept to its sleepy ways, a little backwater town on the periphery of history, perhaps, unassumingly minding its own business, confident that it did not need the rest of the world. And, were it not for the Federal government, Knoxville would probably still be small, quiet, and unassuming — going its own way without much regard for the rest of the world, nor it for Knoxville.
It doesn’t seem like much now, but when Congress passed the Morrill Act of 1862 and the state legislature designated it as a land-grant institution after the civil war, what was to become the University of Tennessee and the people and culture of Knoxville and surrounding area would be forever linked. And, with the advent of a little-known sport in the late 19th Century, the relationship between the UT Vols and Knoxville grew into a love affair that has few rivals.
Still, Knoxville remained a quiet city — even after the continuing intervention of the federal government. Three times the feds ventured into East Tennessee. Three times they changed the landscape. And three times they dislocated people. Once to create the nation’s most popular national park. Once to dam the rivers. And once to end a war. All had their impacts on the region and on the city.
First, in the 20s, the feds created the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then, during the depression, they made the park more than accessible to the people. And, a small town became a tourist mecca — though some would say tourist trap. Millions of acres were eventually taken and a people and a mountain culture permanently impacted.
Next, the feds created the Tennessee Valley Authority. During the depression, TVA projects provided much needed jobs. They also resulted in much needed electrical power and jobs coming to the region. And, perhaps most important to the people of Knoxville at the time, they stopped the flooding that occurred during the spring rainy seasons. Again, large swathes of land were taken and people dislocated from their ancestral homes and livelihoods.
My portrayal of the federal government as taking the land and dislocating people is not totally unfair. While there were many that understood and accepted the necessity for these projects, there were many others that did not. Even to this day, there are those for whom the dislocation of their families is a sore point. But, however they reacted —favorably or not —the birth of the Park, TVA and Oak Ridge have profoundly impacted this region and Knoxville.
Nor was that the end of it. During World War II, the region and Knoxville area were tapped on the shoulder once again. Because of its isolation and the abundance of water and electrical power, the region was once again asked to give up its land to the feds and people were asked to leave their homes.
This time, the region became a key component for the Manhattan Project — and the birth of the nuclear bomb. The feds created a city, Oak Ridge, and Oak Ridge became a center for scientific research on nuclear nuclear, the environment, computing and other scientific endeavors… as well as a major environmental clean-up site.
TVA, headquartered in Knoxville, is spread through out Tennessee and several other southeastern states. The Smoky Mountains, just to the east of Knoxville, runs up and down the eastern edge of Tennessee and the western edge of North Carolina. And, Oak Ridge is to the west and just north of Knoxville. None-the-less, each impacts Knoxville in many significant ways.
Up until the late 70’s, you could define Knoxville by those event that created the Park, TVA and Oak Ridge and say with great certainty, that they went a long way toward defining Knoxville, along with the entire metro and East Tennessee area. At least until some local people decided to invite the world to Knoxville.
In 1982, Knoxville had a world’s fair. And, people came. And, it was a success. And a failure. And, out if its failures, Knoxville is building a success again. The fair itself was a success. But, the impact on Knoxville was a legacy of bank failure and greed that hurt many more. But, it left behind a legacy of failure that took much of the remainder of the century to overcome. But, after some 20 years (more or less) I think, Knoxville has overcome is overcoming that legacy and is fast on its way to becoming — gasp — a big city.
Of course, there is much more to Knoxville’s history and to its people than what I have said above. But, to me, those are the major points that have made Knoxville Knoxville — its people, the land, the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Oak Ridge, ad the 1982 Worlds Fair.
There are many other factors as well that go into making Knoxville what it is. Together, hopefully, with your participation and suggestions, we can explore what it means to be Knoxville and a Knoxvillian.
© 2009 Robert Stockdale Photography, All Rights Reserved.