Beating the heat with history

Jack Neely gives an “air-conditioned history tour” of downtown Knoxville on Tuesday. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

Deadly shootouts, devastating fires and a bit of vaudeville thrown in for good measure… there are far worse ways to spend an evening in downtown Knoxville.

That was the verdict of more than 60 history buffs who gathered Tuesday on the upper floor of Maple Hall, a boutique bowling alley in the 400 block of Gay Street, to enjoy a history tour narrated by Knoxville’s favorite historian, Jack Neely. 

This tour had a welcome twist for those in danger of wilting under the July sun. There was no walking involved, unless perhaps you wanted to refill your cocktail glass before the waiter got back to your table.

The “Air-Conditioned History Tour,” however, featured pretty much everything that anyone curious about Knoxville’s colorful past could ask for, with the added bonus that the event was free. 

Presented by the Knoxville History Project, it marked the resumption of a traditional monthly event at Maple Hall that was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Paul James, director of development.

Neely, the author of several books and thousands of articles, gave the crowd much the same presentation that he would have given them on a traditional historic walking tour of downtown, only he used photographs of important locations for the visual components instead of the real things.

One of the most popular tales from Knoxville’s history was a bloody shootout that left three members of the city’s aristocracy dead in front of the Mechanics Bank & Trust building in the 600 block of Gay Street. 

In October of 1882, Joseph Mabry, a successful entrepreneur and his son, an attorney named Joseph Jr., were killed by Thomas O’Conner, a bank president who was reputed to be the richest man in the state.

Neely explained how bad blood and threats between the two powerful men led to the fatal confrontation. 

 O’Conner spotted Mabry in front of his bank on Gay Street and cut the man down with a double-barreled shotgun, he said. Mabry’s adult son, Joseph Jr., entered the fray by firing a shot from a pistol that killed O’Conner, but before the banker fell he squeezed off another shotgun round that killed the younger Mabry. 

“This captured the attention of the entire nation, including Mark Twain, who wrote about it in Life on the Mississippi when he was talking about Southern chivalry,” Neely said.

Gay Street in the early 20th century. Source: Knoxville History Project

Neely paid particular attention to the 400 block of Gay Street where his audience was gathered.

By the late 1890s, he said, the block was a thriving center of wholesale trade as well as the site of the prominent Hotel Knox. “There were these tall buildings doing big, big business for a multi-state region,” he said. 

The prosperity was dealt a deadly blow in 1897, however, when the “Million Dollar Fire” destroyed two blocks of downtown Knoxville. The blaze, which apparently started in the three-story hotel, was by far the most devastating fire in the city’s history, he explained.

“At least five people were killed,” he said. “More people might have been killed because people were just incinerated in the hotel.”

The tragedy didn’t keep the city’s business district down for long, though. “The buildings came back taller than they were before, and in a slightly more ornate style,” he said. 

Neely also told tales of the nearby Tennessee Theater,  one of downtown Knoxville’s most famous attractions since it was build by Paramount studio in 1928 as a “motion picture palace.”

The Million Dollar Fire of 1897 in downtown Knoxville. Source: McClung Historical Collection

“It got some attention in Hollywood when it was built,” Neely said before going on to explain the type of entertainment that audiences could expect in the theater’s first years of operation.

“There was no such thing as just going to a movie in the early days,” he said. 

Vaudeville acts were commonly included as part of an evening’s entertainment that included several live acts in addition to the scheduled film. It was the musicians, however, who made the history books. 

Fanny Brice and the Ziegfeld Follies, Glenn Miller and Roy Acuff all played at the Tennessee Theater in its golden years, Neely said.

The “tour” touched upon a half-dozen other locations, from Knoxville’s first church and the Bijou Theater to Native American wars and the death of country music legend Hank Williams.

With the threat of COVID receding somewhat, the Knoxville History Project will be hosting a presentation on the second Tuesday of every month at Maple Hall. 

The Knoxville History Project is an educational nonprofit whose mission is to research and promote the history of Knoxville. Knoxville’s only city-focused historical organization, it covers the city’s historic center as well as neighborhoods throughout the county. 

The nonprofit offers educational talks and tours to the public and through schools, museums, churches, and other groups. It also supports numerous other historical organizations and partners with Knoxville Walking Tours and Hard Knox Wire to expand the range of history education in the community.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on July 14, 2021