Not unlike many areas of the United States, a wide-open region which now constitutes parts of both North Carolina and Tennessee once belonged to the Cherokee Indian tribe. In 1785 a man by the name of James White came here after the Revolutionary War to claim land grants, establishing what essentially became Knoxville’s first “neighborhood.”
By 1791 a city had officially taken root and was officially named Knoxville in honor of Henry Knox, who served as War Secretary under President George Washington. As such, it became the capital of the Territory South of the Ohio River, and in 1796, when Tennessee became a state, the city was deemed the state capital, a distinction it held alternatively between three other cities until 1843 when Nashville finally took the reins.
At the time Knoxville came into being its Territorial Governor was William Blount (pronounced “blunt”), one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence and a major negotiator of The Treaty of the Holston which established specific terms of protection between the Cherokee Nation and U.S. government.
In the mid-1800’s marble mining became a major local industry, this beautiful, durable crystalline limestone now referred to as Tennessee Marble found in abundance all over the area. This led to the establishment of numerous quarries, many of which can be explored along the 35-mile long Tennessee Pink Marble Trail, as well as to Knoxville’s moniker: “The Marble City.”
Tennessee Marble can also be found in numerous magnificent structures across the country including the Tennessee State Capital and Grand Central Station in New York City, just to name a few.
In addition to marble, lumber mills, manufacturing, river commerce, farming, energy, and higher education have all been and/or still remain as part of the landscape here.
This wealth of history—past and present—has created a unique city of firsts, “onlies,” and unexpected surprises – together making Knoxville a delightful travel destination.
Believe it...or Knox!
Two great places to get an overview of what the city has to offer are the Museum of East Tennessee History and James White's Fort.
Located at the East Tennessee History Center, The Museum of East Tennessee History features an astounding array of artifacts, memorabilia, interactive exhibits, and temporary and permanent galleries, together showcasing the region’s journey from a small, frontier outpost, through the Civil War, and into its current position as one of the most influential areas of the state as well as the nation.
At James White's Fort, visitors can walk through the original two-story log cabin main house and kitchen and other replicated structures including a Weaving House, Blacksmith Shop, Smokehouse, and Well. Its history includes that of the many inhabitants and servants here who grew tobacco, vegetables, and raised animals for both sustenance and business enterprises.
Only a few blocks away, Blount Mansion—a National Historic landmark and named for the aforementioned Territorial Governor William Blount—stands today as the oldest Knoxville area home in the same location, and it still contains the original floors and various pieces of period furniture. A major landowner back in the day, Blount was highly active in the city’s early establishment, living here with his family and several of his estimated to be over two dozen slave. His half-brother Willie (pronounced “Wiley”), who served two terms as the Tennessee state governor, also resided here.
The property also encompasses the Craighead Jackson House, a three-story brick Federalist structure built circa 1818, serving as the original Blount Mansion visitor center for many years. The creation of the Colonial Revival Parterre (a formal garden with low elaborate plantings divided by walkways and surrounded by English ivy walls) garden behind the house is credited to pioneering female landscape architect Edith Harrison Henderson, known across the country for her amazing designs and who in the late 1970s became the first woman to be elected an officer of the American Society of Landscape Architects. The gardens on the rest of the property are significant as well, as they are the only public cultivated gardens in downtown Knoxville.
Research and archaeological digs are still being conducted at Blount Mansion, with a new grand opening set to take place in September 2021.
A visit to the Historic Old City provides a taste of what life was like here in the 1880s when river and railroad commerce traversed the city. Stockyards, factories, a thriving Red-Light District, and reportedly the highest concentration of saloons in the region, coupled with scores of European immigrant and free-black residents give this area its own flavor and flair.
Today you’ll find a lovingly preserved industrial and entertainment area peppered with scores of amazing restaurants, pubs and breweries, eclectic shops, galleries, and live concerts and events. Old City is also one exciting aspect of the self-guided Historic Downtown Knoxville Walking Tour (there is also an interactive online version) featuring 70 significant destinations.
The main drag through downtown Knoxville is historic Gay Street. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and although encompassing only one square mile, Gay Street is poppin’ with over 75 bistros and restaurants to suit all tastes, ice cream shops, galleries, rooftop bars, entertainment venues, an upscale bowling alley, inviting green spaces, and theaters that entertain both denizens and visitors alike.
It is also here that you will find the Hyatt Place Knoxville, a significant structure in that it was originally the historic Farragut Hotel, opening in 1917 and named after Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (The Farragut Museum about 30 minutes away in Farragut, TN showcases the life, work, and legacy of this first commissioned admiral of the U.S. Navy made famous in part for coining the declaration, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead").
It was here where “The Godfather of Soul,” venerable entertainer James Brown, owned radio station WJBE—the latter standing for "James Brown Enterprises"—for close to a decade beginning in the late 1960s. The station still proudly operates today as Knoxville's only Black-owned radio station.
A Knoxville centerpiece and the brightest spot in the city, literally, is the Sunsphere. Built in 1982 for that year’s World’s Fair, it soars some 26 stories (266 feet) high and each pane of glass in the huge reflective ball at the top was made with 24-karat gold. The upper floors are used for special events and from the 4th floor Observation Deck you can take in spectacular 360-degree views of downtown, the Tennessee River, the nearby University of Tennessee campus, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the distance.
The Sunsphere is situated in World’s Fair Park, which is highlighted by a two football field-plus size festival Performance Lawn, family splash pads, the Tennessee Amphitheater, Volunteer Landing and Marina, Knoxville Convention Center, and Knoxville Museum of Art.
One of the biggest draws to the Knoxville area is its wealth of Civil War history. One of the most popular methods of delving into this divisive period that pitted the North against the South is by traversing along the Civil War Driving Tour. The 15 sites along it encompass everything from historic homes like the Armstrong-Lockett House and the Bleak House - Confederate Memorial Hall, to the vestiges of Fort Higley and Fort Dickerson, the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture, historic cemeteries, and more.
Although all are important destinations in the city’s history, it’s more than worth noting the significance of the Mabry Hazen House for several reasons. Built in 1858 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, back in the day it was the highest point in Knoxville (today’s Mabry Hill) until annexation, and where three generations of the same family (the Mabrys and in-law Hazens) who were among the 33 people who owned two-thirds of the wealth in Knoxville, lived. The home’s interesting Civil War history is fascinating, including “defection” from Confederate to Union supporters, a myriad of sex scandals, infamous gun fights, and although the family was among of the largest slave owners, both the slave and free blacks here were revered for their incredible skills, approximately 28% of the latter also homeowners which was higher than within the sizeable Irish population that had immigrated here at that time.
Perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the Mabry Hazen House is that it possesses one of the largest original family collections in the entire country with 2,500 original objects on display and many more in archival storage. The property is also a First-Level Arboretum featuring 32 species of flora.
So Much to See and Do!
June of 2021 marks Knoxville’s 225th anniversary, and there are numerous celebrations in the works. All told, it’s no wonder there’s so much to see, learn, and explore in and around Knoxville – The Marble City!
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