Knoxville’s first settler was James White, who in 1786 built a fort where First Creek flows into the Tennessee River and named it after himself. In 1791 governor William Blount chose the fort as capital of the Territory South of the River Ohio, and renamed it after secretary of war Henry Knox.
In the same year the first lots of land were sold, and the town of Knoxville was born. Street names were borrowed from Philadelphia and Baltimore, and four lots were reserved for Blount College, to be Knoxville’s first school. Shortly after the town was laid out, Governor Blount built a frame house overlooking the river, which became the territorial capitol. Knoxville was incorporated in 1815.
During its first 50 years, Knoxville was chiefly a way station for travelers making their way along the Tennessee River or overland on stage roads. The population grew slowly to about 2,000 in 1850 and during the decade before the Civil War the number of residents more than doubled to about 5,000, thanks to the arrival of the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad.
A majority of Knoxvillians voted to secede from the Union in the June 1861 referendum. But some city residents, and most East Tennesseans who lived in the rural countryside surrounding Knoxville, supported the Union. Initially Knoxville was occupied by the Confederate Army under Gen. Felix Zollicoffer, whose job was to keep the rail lines open. After East Tennessee Unionists started to harass the Southern troops and burn up railroad bridges, Gen. Zollicoffer launched a campaign of repression against Union supporters in the city and surrounding areas.
Zollicoffer’s troops were called south to fight in the fall of 1863, and Federal troops under the command of Gen. Ambrose Burnside quickly took Knoxville. Burnside built a series of forts around the city, which enabled him to easily repulse an attempted attack by Confederates under command of Gen. James Longstreet in November 1863. Knoxville remained under Union control for the duration of the war. Union supporters returned to the city and retaliated against the Confederate sympathizers who had had the upper hand during the early period of the war.
After the Civil War, Knoxville experienced an industrial expansion. Iron and cloth mills, machine shops, apparel and furniture factories, and marble quarries were built. Thanks to the railroad, the city was a major distribution center; in 1896 Knoxville was the third-largest wholesale center in the South, behind Atlanta and New Orleans.
During this time, the first suburbs developed. West Knoxville, now called Fort Sanders, became the city’s premier residential area, with many fine homes and mansions built around the turn of the 20th century. With prosperity came people; by 1900 Knoxville had a population of 32,637.
Knoxville was not without problems, however. Pollution from factories made the city air and water unhealthy. Race relations were poor, and African Americans were stripped of power by political gerrymandering and economic discrimination. As urban problems grew, the city’s elite moved into suburbs farther and farther from the city center.
Events in 1919 showed the tensions of the day. In August of that year, a riotous white mob tore down the city jail in search of a mixed-race man who had been charged with murdering a white woman. When the mob did not find the suspect, Maurice Mayes, they headed to the black section of town to cause havoc. When the dust settled, one National Guard officer and one African American had been killed. Some 36 white men were arrested for their actions, but an all-white jury refused to convict. It was a different story for Maurice Mayes, who was convicted and eventually executed for murder.
During the mid-20th century the trend of outward expansion continued in Knoxville. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Knoxville’s downtown deteriorated as retail shops closed and people moved to the suburbs. Central Knoxville became a no-man’s-land where only downtown office workers dared to venture. In the early 1980s, Knoxville was famously dubbed “a scruffy little city.”
Some people trace the present downtown renaissance to the 1982 World’s Fair, when the Sunsphere and the World’s Fair Park were built and 11 million people came to visit the internationally themed festival event. Time magazine uncharitably dubbed the event “Barn Burner in a Backwater” and the Philadelphia Inquirer said the grounds were built along a wasted gully of Second Creek, a place that was “like a hole in your sock.”
Despite the fears that the World’s Fair was overly ambitious, it did break even financially and left with a park that the city—some 20 years later—finally decided to use to its full advantage. Over the succeeding years, downtown Knoxville has staged a comeback, with the addition of a downtown art museum, the birth of an entertainment district in the Old City, and, most recently, the rebirth of Gay Street and Market Square as centers for business, commerce, and residential living.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition