The worst of times

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The Flood of 1867 caused extensive damage to Knoxville while the city was still struggling to recover from the Civil War. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

Disasters — both natural and manmade — have dominated the news in recent weeks. Hurricanes, wildfires, the tragedy of Afghanistan, the ongoing COVID pandemic….it seems as though Fate has an unquenchable thirst for horror as of late.

East Tennessee, of course, has seen its share of disasters. Wars, riots and plagues have left their scars on our region, as have floods and fires. The land itself once trembled during the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded in North America, and mass transit disasters have twice claimed the lives of numerous Knoxville residents.

In today’s installment of Hard Knox Histories, beloved local historian Jack Neely and editor J.J. Stambaugh take a look at some of the worst disasters to befall our community over the past two centuries….

J,J.: Knox County and its surrounding communities may at first glance seem almost immune to major disasters, but a closer look at the historical record shows that East Tennessee has suffered its share of tragedies at the hands of man and Mother Nature.

The earliest such disaster I can think of would be the New Madrid Earthquake, which might not have cost many lives but actually changed the landscape in places. Are there records of what Knoxvillians experienced?

Jack: The epicenter of the quake was based over along the central part of the Mississippi River, but Knoxville definitely felt it, as did most of the South. I’m told that New Madrid in 1811-1812 was the strongest series of earthquakes in North American history, including even those in California.

J.J.: Supposedly it was an 8.2 earthquake, although I won’t pretend to know how that estimate was arrived at. But the quake was felt all the way in Philadelphia and was powerful enough to create Reelfoot Lake.

Jack: The problem with researching that era is that reporting was never comprehensive, especially when the subject wasn’t political. Newspapers would report mainly anecdotes, often without attribution. There’s a bizarre story about a guy traveling here from Asheville in 1811, via the French Broad, when one of them hit. He saw sudden fire in the woods, and was convinced the quake caused something like a volcano. That’s probably not trustworthy. 

Perhaps fortunately, this area wasn’t developed much with multi-story masonry buildings. Log cabins and small wooden buildings like Blount Mansion, which was here then, survived. (But so did the Ramsey House, which is built of stone.)

I’ve found a few references to brick or stone chimneys tumbling, and things falling off shelves, but that may have been the worst of it in the Knoxville area. It’s interesting that some people at the time thought it was a sign of war to come, and of course the War of 1812 broke out soon after the quakes. 

In retrospect, some people have speculated that the Southern Bible Belt was inspired by the New Madrid quakes, that they scared people into a new respect for religion. As far as I know, that’s just an interesting idea. But Knoxville didn’t build its first church until four years after the quakes, when we suddenly built two. 

This dramatic woodcut from the early 19th century purports to show a scene from the New Madrid Earthquake.

 J.J.: Throughout history, the most common manmade disaster is war. I can think of only two conflicts that were fought in East Tennessee: the lengthy struggle between Native Americans and European settlers, and of course the Civil War.

How destructive were these two conflicts to Knox County, and how did they impact the people on both sides who lived here? 

Jack: To me, wars seem too complicated, caused by human emotions and aspirations, and perhaps brewing for generations, to compare to natural disasters, which are mostly single events, some of them over in minutes. But they do have carnage in common.

The Native American struggles were mainly a series of incidents that affected some people severely, and others hardly at all. There were no Native American settlements in Knox County when the early settlers arrived. The worst incident here was the Cavett Station Massacre, in what’s now West Knoxville, when a large band of radicals known as the Chickamaugans had resolved to destroy the white capital at Knoxville. After killing all 13 inhabitants of that fortified settlement, including women and children, they were discouraged by an elaborate bluff and turned back. Of course, John Sevier and his allies inflicted their own disasters on Cherokee villages at some distance from Knoxville.

The Civil War was a genuine and comprehensive disaster for Knoxville, lasting longer than just the four years of the war. The political divisions here were scaring people away even in the late 1850s, when Knoxville was finally connected by railroads and seemed poised to become a major industrial city. The year 1861 brought murder in the streets, and it continued well after the war, until at least 1871. Arson was a reality, too, though not well investigated or described. And the siege itself, in 1863, caused a great deal of damage to farmland and sometimes to buildings, like the university on the Hill. 

Some civilians here died as a direct or indirect result of the war, but most of those killed were soldiers who weren’t part of the local population. For all of their families, of course, Knoxville was a tragic place. You can go to the National Cemetery and get a sense of that, especially all the “Unknown” markers, indicating people whose families just had to guess what happened to them somewhere in East Tennessee. 

Former Confederates fled Knoxville, and some never returned—including William Swan, former mayor and leading citizen. It was a major economic setback for a city that had seemed about to bloom, back in 1858. Knoxville didn’t really start to recover in an obvious way until the 1870s.

Fort Sanders, built by Union troops during the Civil War. Source: McClung Historical Collection.


J.J.: One recurrent natural disaster that was feared by our ancestors in East Tennessee was flooding, which wasn’t brought under control until TVA built its series of dams in the 20th century. I’m uncertain of the details, but I understand that Knoxville suffered a particularly grievous flood soon after the Civil War. What happened?

Jack: Yes, today we’re kind of spoiled by TVA. We get flash floods, where creeks overflow because of rains upstream, but we no longer experience river floods, where the water just rises and rises and you can’t do anything about it. That happened on a semi-regular basis for generations.

The worst flood in Knoxville history — and arguably the worst natural disaster — was the innocently named “Freshet” of March, 1867. It was a combination of rains and melting mountain snow that just inundated the whole Upper Tennessee Valley. Low-lying Chattanooga got it much worse than Knoxville did, but the stories from Knoxville sound apocalyptic enough.

For a time, the old part of downtown (which is mostly 60 feet above the river level) was an island in the middle of a swirling river. It destroyed the Union bridge across the river as well as some of the creek bridges. There’s an account of the whole populace, Black and white, crowding together over near Hill Avenue and watching one riverfront warehouse after another break loose and float down the river. It’s frustrating to research it, because in 1867, at the beginning of an economic collapse, people who wrote for the papers were mainly concerned with economic losses. I’ve never seen an estimate of deaths in Knoxville—just these gothic stories of plucking drowned bodies from trees, down along Central.

For almost a century, there was a stone marker visible showing where the high-water mark of the 1867 flood was, and it remained kind of an object of curiosity. I think it was somewhere in the vicinity of the Gay Street Bridge. It disappeared sometime in the mid-20th century. If anybody out there knows where it is or what happened to it, I’d be interested to hear.  

J.J.: Disasters also come in the form of epidemics, as we’ve all been vividly reminded of in the last two years. The Spanish Flu and COVID pandemics are two obvious ones, but what about diseases like cholera and yellow fever?

Jack: Yes, those may be the two biggest, in sheer numbers of cases, but Knoxville was hit by several epidemics over the years, sometimes more than one in the same year. Cholera sounds like a third-world horror, but we had to deal with it at least three times. Once was around 1854, when a lot of people just fled town in fear. They didn’t know what caused it, that it was mainly an issue with poor sewers and dirty water. It was often considered a poor-people’s illness, but in 1873 a prominent justice, T.A.R. Nelson, died of it.

Yellow Fever was mainly a problem of the Deep South, but in the 1870s, many epidemic refugees from Memphis traveled here. Many of them had already contracted the disease and died here.

Proportionally, the worst epidemic in Knoxville history was probably the “Fever” of 1838, which killed about a tenth of the population. We still don’t know what that was. They had to stop publishing the paper, because the whole staff got sick. So they just published weekly lists of the dead. Our famous U.S. Senator, Hugh Lawson White, came down with it. He died two years later, and may never have completely recovered. It was blamed on the stench of the industrial mill ponds along First Creek, and considering most of it happened in the summer and fall, it may well be that those ponds were breeding mosquitoes that carried whatever it was. 

Smallpox, though, was one of the worst diseases, and Knoxville had to deal with it repeatedly, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was a vaccine, but it was painful and left a permanent scar, and most people didn’t volunteer to be inoculated with it. But of course smallpox itself was painful and left permanent scars, too. Most people recovered, usually with scars, but many died. It was so feared, and so contagious, that patients were sequestered in “pest houses,” a marked house in town—or at a sort of concentration camp in the woods, off Prosser Road. Many died in that camp, and were buried there. 

Survivors wander through the ruins of houses in the aftermath of the Flood of 1897 that devastated Knoxville. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

J.J.: One manmade disaster that haunted virtually all towns and cities prior to the 20th century was fire. Knoxville, of course, has seen plenty of deadly infernos over the years, but none were as destructive as the Million Dollar Fire in 1897. How long did it take for that section of Gay Street to recover?

Jack: I tend to call it the Great Fire of 1897, because “million-dollar” doesn’t really touch it historically. 

It wiped out most of the east side of the 400 block of Gay Street, when it was a block known for big buildings. Five deaths have been attributed to it, but we really can’t know for sure. Many of them were incinerated, and one of the buildings was a hotel, so we can’t know for certain who might have been visiting and didn’t get out. It was an embarrassment to the city, because it made it clear that we hadn’t invested in enough fire equipment. They had to send some extra engines up from Chattanooga via train, and the fire was still burning bright when they got here.

In that case, Knoxville was booming at the time, and rebuilt almost immediately—in fact, most of those buildings were rebuilt bigger than they had been before. Today, you can tell by looking—the building on the southern corner, now Black Horse and Tailor Lofts—is shorter than the others on the block, because it stopped the fire, and didn’t burn. Therefore, it’s much older than they are.

A crowd gathers on Gay Street to see the damage caused by the “Million Dollar Fire” of 1897. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

J.J.: It was only a few short years later that one of the deadliest disasters to strike our region occurred. The 1904 train crash in New Market killed at least 64 people and injured more than 100 others. What happened, and how did people react?

Jack: The Southern Railway wreck at New Market was very much a Knoxville event, because it involved a passenger train that had just left the Knoxville station at Depot Street colliding headlong into another passenger train that was bound for that station. 

It’s interesting that we still don’t know for sure how many died, and the high estimates are more than twice as great as the low estimates. Dozens of victims were laid out in the grass near the station, and some of them were buried at Old Gray. Our Emory Place, formerly Emory Park, was named for the most famous of the victims, Rev. Isaac Emory, a well-known local cleric. Our congressman, Henry Gibson, was on one of the trains, and was badly injured, but survived. It’s interesting that he retired from politics then, and spent the rest of his long life writing epic poetry.

That may be our most famous disaster, because it’s the subject of some historically early country songs by Charlie Oaks and others. People’s reaction in those days was mournful, obviously, but I think they were more accustomed to senseless tragedy than we are today. Train wrecks were not uncommon in those days, and people read about them, just as they read about bad car wrecks today, and shake their heads and turn the page. As I recall, it was blamed on a conductor’s poor calculations.

Possibly the most famous of the disasters to strike at Knoxville’s heart was the New Market train crash in 1904 that killed dozens of people. Source: McClung Historical Collection.

J.J.: One particularly heartbreaking disaster fell entirely upon Knoxville’s Black community on Aug. 30 – 31, 1919. I don’t think that anyone knows precisely what happened, but the broad strokes are that a white mob tried to break into the jail to lynch Maurice Mays, who was accused of murdering a white woman. The jailers had already moved Mays, however, and the crowd proceeded to get drunk on confiscated booze and armed themselves before trying to storm the nearby mixed neighborhood. The residents, including veterans of the recent war, resisted. A visiting National Guard unit got involved. Bullets flew, people died, and supposedly a lot of Blacks moved away in the aftermath. 

That’s my understanding, at least. The cause, of course, was racism rather than Mother Nature. What were some of the immediate and long-term consequences of the riot?

Jack: That was a complicated weekend. I wouldn’t claim it fell “entirely” on the Black community. In dollar terms, I bet most of the property damage, looting and opportunistic vandalism, was to white-owned businesses on several blocks of Gay and West Vine. The sheriff’s house was badly trashed, as was his jail. But all that damage was caused by vicious and/or drunken white people, many of them angry that they had been unsuccessful at lynching a mixed-race man who was accused of murdering a white woman. There had been white-on-white lynch mobs before, but I’m sure race prejudice did inflame this one to make it the worst riot in Knoxville history. But there was a great deal of damage to the Black business district, of course. Although only two were reported killed, one of each race (and the white man, a soldier, was killed by his own comrades’ machine-gun fire), more likely died afterward. We may never know for certain, but it’s a subject for further research.

It was the end of one of Knoxville’s favorite boasts. Up until then, we liked to say that we just didn’t have the racial problems — including race-fueled lynch mobs — that had become common in several parts of the South. Knoxville had seen itself as a sort of progressive paragon up until then, and you don’t see quite so much of that pride after 1919.

One misconception is that Black people left Knoxville in large numbers after the riot. Some may have but, according to the Census, the city’s Black population actually increased by almost 4,000 between 1910 and 1920, and almost 6,000 in the 1920s. The African American percentage of the city’s population did decline about that time, but that shift in proportion seems a result of the city’s major annexations of several heavily white suburban and rural areas in 1917.

J.J.:  When first discussing this article, you pointed out at least one disaster that I don’t remember at all — an airliner crash in 1963 or 1964 that killed several prominent Knoxvillians. What happened?

In July, 1964, a United Air Lines Flight 823, a four-engine turboprop Viscount, bound from the Washington area to McGhee Tyson Airport, crashed in a remote wooded area of Cocke County. 

That was, I think, still the worst airplane disaster in East Tennessee history. All 39 passengers and crew were killed, including one passenger who leapt from the plane before it crashed. The cause was a bit of a mystery, but eventually it was blamed on a fire of unknown origin in the cabin. 

The plane’s ultimate destination was Huntsville, but of those 39 killed, 11 were East Tennesseans and seven of them were Knoxvillians. Two of those were especially well known here, such as eccentric filmmaker Sam Orleans. He was known mostly for his commercial work, but was probably the most skilled filmmaker in Knoxville at the time. Bradley Reeves has done a great deal of research into his career, and found many of his short films. He lived in an offbeat sort of place on the south side of the river. 

The other was U.T. Professor Durant Da Ponte, who was returning from giving a lecture about Tennessee Williams at the University of Maryland. Originally from New Orleans, he was a direct descent of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, but was well known on his own as a scholar of Southern literature. He was just 46 years old and had a wife and kids here as well as a house in Sequoyah Hills.  There was also a Fulton Sylphon executive, and a mother and child who were up north seeking medical treatment for the kid.

So no volcanoes or hurricanes, minimal earthquakes and landslides, and — thanks to TVA — minimal flooding.  But we do have some dangerous spells here.

J.J.: Absolutely. As we’ve all been forcefully reminded, bad things happen sometimes, and not just to people in history books. 

In fact, we’re living through the deadliest disaster in our history right now thanks to COVID. As of Sept. 9 (yesterday) the pandemic had claimed 728 lives in Knox County. In comparison, the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed 209 people in Knoxville proper, plus another 16 in unincorporated areas of Knox County. 

Recent times have seen other heartbreaking disasters in our area, such as the wildfires that caused widespread damage in Gatlinburg and other parts of Sevier County. The flames killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 buildings, which probably made it the most destructive blaze in our region’s history, far worse than even the 1897 fire. Jack, I think our ancestors would have said that you hit the proverbial nail on the head a minute ago when you said, “We do have some dangerous spells here.”

Well, that wraps it up for this installment of Hard Knox Histories, a special feature brought to the pages of Hard Knox Wire every two weeks by virtue of our partnership with the Knoxville History Project, which is one of the coolest nonprofits in town and absolutely deserves your support at https://knoxvillehistoryproject.org/khp-donations/.

Look for Jack and J.J. again on Sept. 24!

Jack Neely can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on September 10, 2021

Hard Knox Wire editor J.J. Stambaugh (left) and local historian Jack Neely discuss their biweekly feature series in the offices of the Knoxville History Project. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh