By Thomas Lanford, Jr.
I am not a huge fan of the city of Knoxville–and if you have ever tried to drive through the city on I-40 or I-75 then you probably know what I mean. Traffic aside, the treatment of opposing fans by city officials is nothing short of pathetic (watch where you park because they have un-posted laws about alcohol consumption on city owned property even if that property is rented by a private enterprise). That being said there is a lot to do in and around Knoxville and you can have a grand time with the slightest bit of effort.
The Women’s Basketball Hall-of-Fame is located in Knoxville. Of course it will take a while to find the few members of the UGA family included (despite the number of incredible women basketball players that have been at UGA) but if you have an interest in the women’s side of the game then take time for a tour.
If you are traveling with your family consider visiting the Knoxville Zoo. It is not the best or largest in the world and is a tad “pricey” but it is a nice time–especially with children. (Note: if you enjoy visiting zoos–and especially if you have children–you should consider joining a zoo membership organization. Most zoos have reciprocal agreements with other zoos around the country so a one-time “family membership” fee–usually less than $100–will get you and your family into many zoos, aquariums, nature centers, or wild-life sanctuaries for free or at a greatly reduced rate.)
The Ijams Nature Center is yet another option for traveling with family but adults too will appreciate it. If you do not have sensory over-load from the Smokies or did not make it that far but still want to explore a bit of nature then plan to spend some time at this nature center full of exhibits, trails, river-walks, wild-life, and such. It is well worth the time–especially if you are trying to relax after fighting traffic getting into and around Knoxville.
Pretty much reserved for children–especially the younger set– is the East Tennessee Discovery Center. I do not know how many of you travel with children but it might be a place to drop them (with a chaperone) while you go to the game.
I would suggest those with any interest in history or who are considering doing the trails mentioned later or touring some of the historical sites in the area start at the East Tennessee History Museum. The museum helps you get a feel for the fascinating history of the region and brings much that you will see into focus. Take a couple of hours–or more–to know the who, what, where, & why of the area and answer your questions before you can even think to ask them.
There are several ante-bellum homes that grace Knoxville. Each is worth a visit for differing reasons but all are delightful and give a bit of the history of both Knoxville and Tennessee. (note: there is a “combo pass”–currently $19.95–that will allow you to tour all of the houses listed except for “Bleak House”. It is available at any of the participating houses and the Knoxville CVB.)
Built in 1858 “Bleak House”, now known as Confederate Memorial Hall, served as Gen’l Longstreet’s headquarters during the War Between the States when Confederate troops attacked Gen’l Burnside and his Union force at Knoxville. Now owned by the UDC it is a show place filled with period pieces–many original to the home–downstairs. Upstairs is a library/museum of books and material related to the War Between the States (WBtS) and a vast and incredible collection of WBtS memorabilia. The “tower” of the house was used by Confederate sharp-shooters during the siege of Knoxville. On the walls of the “tower” are drawings of three soldiers who died in the tower–drawn by their compatriots–as well as blood stains from those same men. The gardens and lawn leading from the house to the river are beautiful so reserve some time to wander through them as well as tour the artifacts on the grounds. Almost next door to “Bleak House” is “Crescent Bend” or the Armstrong-Lockett House. It was built in the 1830s to be the manor house of a 600 acre farm and what a house it is. The incredible terraced gardens leading from the back of the house down to the river feature nine levels, fountains, and beautiful land-scaping. Most of the furnishings are original and the house is quite a “show piece”. Like “Bleak House” the Mabry-Hazen House, was built in 1858 but that is where the similarities end. It was built as a solid home for a well-to-do family and that shows in the upscale but not showy furnishings. The house is filled with the collections of the three generations of the family that lived here and present something of a history of Knoxville as seen through the Mabry and Hazen families. On the grounds is the Bethel Confederate Cemetery where 1,600 Confederate dead–including many who died in the battles around Knoxville–are buried. Just outside of the Knoxville city limits, but part of the “Historic Homes Series”, are Marble Springs and Ramsey House Plantation. Marble Springs is the last home of Revolutionary War hero and the first governor of Tennessee John Sevier. The tour includes the rustic 18th century farm house as well as several of the original out-buildings from Sevier’s life-time. Ramsey House Plantation, built in the 1790s, is the first stone house in the area. The Ramsey family is very important in early history of both Knoxville as well as the state of Tennessee and even (what is now) the University of Tennessee. Many of the furnishings are original and the plantation is an excellent example of life of the region in the late 18th and early 19th century. The last two visits on the tour are Blount Mansion and the James White Fort. Blount Mansion was built in stages from 1792 until the 1830s. The house was built for territorial governor William Blount whose wife, Mary, requested “a proper wooden house”. Not only was it the home of the governor but served as the territorial Capitol building and contains many of the original furnishings purchased by the Blount family for use in the home. (note: Blount Mansion also offers game day parking for just $10.00. Call 865/525.2375 and ask for Leslie for more information.) James White’s Fort, located almost directly across the street from Blount Mansion, was the first pioneer structure to be built in what was to become Knoxville. James White was given a land grant for his Revolutionary War service and thought the area would be ideal for a settlement. After he built the house he erected a stockade to protect the family from wild animals and then began laying out the area to become a city which he named for then Secretary of War (and Revolutionary War hero) Henry Knox. Interestingly enough the University of Tennessee was founded on land donated by James White and was originally named Blount College after William Blount.
Hill and Gay Streets intersect just up from the Blount Mansion and down the street from James White Fort. This intersection is probably the most historical spot in Knoxville. As mentioned you are right at the first territorial capitol and the original settlement that was to become Knoxville but also at that intersection, on the grounds of the old county court house, are the site of the signing of the Holston Treaty which allowed white settlers into the area, the graves of John Sevier and his wife, the Chisholm Tavern – the first tavern and meeting area in the settlement and what was the Andrew Johnson Hotel–where country music legend Hank Williams was last seen alive.
Because of my issues with the city officials we do not stay in Knoxville. For the past few years we have gotten a group together and rented a house close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spent time relaxing in and around that beautiful area. There are several options for renting places in the area but try to avoid any place that requires driving through Pigeon Forge or Sevierville because traffic in those areas is nothing short of awful. Check the web-site for all that GSMNP offers but you can spend days wandering through the park and visiting Cades Cove, Clingman’s Dome (the highest point in Tennessee and in the Smokies), waterfalls, mountain streams, mountain trails, or studying nature and just viewing the scenery. With over 120 species of trees, 1,600 types of flowering plants, over 4,000 kinds of non-flowering plants, 200 varieties of birds and at least 10,000 various species of animals you could spend years wandering the oldest mountains in North America and still not see everything. As hard as it is to fathom if there is not enough scenery in the GSMNP then try one of the scenic by-ways around the park. Cherohala Skyway, the uncompleted Foothills Parkway, or–of course–the Blue Ridge Parkway are all incredible drives and well worth an excursion.
If you like dams……really…..I find them fascinating. Knoxville sits right smack dab in the middle of the Tennessee Valley Authority and is surrounded by dams built under the auspices of that agency to control the Tennessee River for farming, flood control, electricity, and other reasons. Many of them are open for touring and some of them are famous not only for their work as dams but for being locations in motion pictures–Harrison Ford taking a dive off of the Cheoah in a famous scene from The Fugitive for example (look about half-way down — but if you want to know where the dams are…click on the link.
Back to where to stay…..there are a couple of state parks near Knoxville. Norris Dam and Big Ridge State Parks tend to get overlooked because they are on the other side of Knoxville from the Smoky Mountains but are pleasant places to stay. Both are “off the beaten path”, offer cabins, and have some things to offer besides the lakes and/or dams after which they were named. (Do be aware that at times the state likes to try and balance its budget by closing state parks so keep that in mind when making reservations.)
Both state parks were early TVA/CCC projects and are examples of the building style of those organizations from back in the 1930s which make them historical in their own right. Norris Dam has a working grist mill as well as exhibits of life in the Appalachians which is a popular theme in this area. If you visited Cades Cove you saw some great examples of how folks in the region in the last century lived but there is a village devoted to life of that time and region that is not nearly as crowded. Just a few miles from Knoxville and only minutes from Norris Dam State Park, The Museum of the Appalachia is an incredible display of life in the mountains from the time that people settled there until not that long ago. An assortment of various buildings–including mills, barns, and houses–displays, exhibits, and such gives visitors a lesson in “self-sufficiency” and a visit to the “living museum” is well worth the time and effort. Especially if all of the exhibits and displays are open it is a great place for families.
Few think of it now but during the 1940s much of the area just north of Knoxville did not exist– as far as the government’s admitting it. Seriously…..much of the testing for the atomic bomb, the “Manhattan Project”, was being done in the area and it was so secret that Oak Ridge was not even included on road maps until after WWII. You can visit the area that was considered “off limits” for most of the late 1930s and in to the 1940s and see what things were like in a society trying to develop an atomic weapon and not let anyone else know about it. The best way to explore the area is by getting the tour guide mentioned in the next paragraph (“Top Secret”). Even if you do not tour the area do not miss the American Museum of Science and Energy at Oak Ridge. It is a great option for those with families especially if paired with the Oak Ridge Children’s Museum.
The state tourism board has set up a series of “trails”. These are driving tours of the regions around the entire state but a few focus on the Knoxville area. “White Lightning: Thunder Road to Rebels Trail”, “Rocky Top”, “Top Secret”, and “Sunny Side: Early Country Trail” are those most closely associated with the Knoxville area. Brochures are available from the state tourism department or on-line. You can use these guides to go in any direction to or from Knoxville and they are a great resource to use when deciding what you wish to visit in the area. Most either start or end in Knoxville so are great to use in your visit. In addition the Knoxville Civil War Round Table has a “Civil War Driving Tour” that visits many of the places mentioned above but focuses on the WBtS and visits many places important to Knoxville’s participation in the war such as Forts Sanders, Stanley, & Dickerson; the sites of many batteries and headquarters and troop movements. Knoxville is not thought of as one of the “hot spots” of the WBtS but much happened in/around the city that will appeal to any of those who have an interest in the war.
So even if you have issues with the city officials and some of their attitudes towards opposing fans and hate the abysmal traffic there are ways for you and your family to enjoy yourselves whether you choose to spend time in or simply around Knoxville.