Dirt Track Date: Tracing the Origins of Knoxville's Original Speedway

Dear Doc Knox:

Was Speedway Circle (just south of the intersection of Rutledge Pike and Asheville Highway) ever used as a real racetrack?

Howard A. Sutherland

Dear Mr. Sutherland:

Indeed it was. This peculiar oval is in the Burlington residential community just a few hundred yards southeast of Chilhowee Park. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's worth a visit to behold.

Developed as a half-mile horse-racing track during the Grover Cleveland administration, it served that purpose for about 20 years, straddling the 19th and 20th centuries.

It was owned and operated by Mr. Cal Johnson, the black man raised to be a slave who, after the war, became a businessman and sometime politician. Johnson (1844-1925) lived in a nice big house downtown, and owned a chain of saloons—including a prominent one at the corner of Gay Street and Vine, catering to both races—as well as other businesses, including a clothing factory on State Street. That three-story building, which still features Johnson's name high on the façade, is the only building associated with him still standing. A lot of folks would love to see something positive happen to that building, which is currently being used only for storage.

In 1884, Johnson was elected to Knoxville's Board of Aldermen, our City Council.

Johnson's wealth allowed him to indulge his interest in thoroughbred horses; he owned several that competed nationally, as at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. The first race track that bore his name was in South Knoxville, from 1881 to 1895, but after some complaints about poor attendance at that site—in those pre-automotive days, it seemed remote—Johnson cooperated with the East Tennessee Fair Association to build this East Knoxville oval in 1896. Johnson owned the property, but leased it to the fair organization. The new oval was known as the East Tennessee Fair Association Track, at first. Within a few years, it was popularly known as the Cal Johnson Race Track.

Located near the end of Knoxville's first electric-streetcar line, which ran all day from downtown, the track was easy for everybody to get to, and handy to popular Chilhowee Park, which sometimes accessed the racetrack when big fairs hosted horse racing. It was a sportsman's mecca in late-Victorian Knoxville, when men in bowler hats and some daring ladies in bustly dresses would ride out here to root on their favorites.

It was also the site of some other spectacles, like the first airplane landing in Knoxville in 1911. Johnson helped sponsor the event, and reluctantly cut down the lone tree in the track's infield to accommodate it. It also saw races in association with the famous National Conservation Exposition of 1913, which the city celebrated last month.

The speedway was just 10 years old when the state banned gambling in 1906, a move that undermined the business of horse racing in Knoxville—though the track, and some horse races, held on here until at least 1915, apparently without open betting. Soon after, that oval became probably Knoxville's first automobile-racing track. It witnessed at least one fatal crash, in 1916: that of automobile racer and early auto dealer Edward Lockett—whose funeral was held in his uncle's Hill Avenue house, the house later known as the Lord Lindsey.

In the 1920s, imaginative developers built houses along the track and called it, naturally, Speedway Circle.

The short street intersecting with Speedway Circle, Calvin Street, is apparently named for Mr. Johnson.

Betting my money on the bobtail nag,

Z. Heraclitus Knox, Esq.

Dear Doc Knox:

Was Washington Pike a road to Washington County or to Washington D.C.?

Jasper Neville

Dear Mr. Neville:

Answers don't come quickly, because as you imply, Washington Pike also leads in the direction of Washington County, Tenn.—which dates all the way back to 1777, when it was Washington County, N.C. It's home of Jonesborough, Tennessee's oldest town.

So Washington County, Tenn., is actually older than Washington, D.C., and was presumably named for the 45-year-old Virginian just then becoming famous for his leadership of the rebellious patriots.

From Knoxville, a logical route to Washington, D.C., by the roads of the day, might well pass through Washington County, Tenn. Even today, I-81, the route we take to get to Washington, D.C., skims the northern corner of Washington County.

It calls for a little bit of guesswork. Roads often didn't have consistent names. Two centuries ago, people might refer to a "road to Washington" but generally did not use the term Washington Pike. Old road maps don't always have clear indications of names of roads. For the original users, it was enough just to know there was a road there.

Some circumstantial evidence in favor of the D.C. hypothesis is that pikes are almost always named after destination cities or towns, rarely named after counties. It's Kingston Pike, for example, not Roane Pike; Maryville Pike, not Blount. And there's a pretty obvious reason why. In those days especially, a county was a much-larger entity than a town. The name of a county, applied to a pike, would be less precise and less useful to travelers.

On the other hand, if Washington Pike is indeed named for Washington, D.C., it would also be a bit of an anomaly, too, because our capital city is almost 500 miles away. There's no destination applied to a Knoxville road that's nearly as far away as Washington. The second farthest is Asheville, of Asheville Highway fame.

It might seem funny to think of the idea that Knoxville would have a road directly to Washington, D.C., but for the better part of 30 years, Knoxville was one of only about 16 state or territorial capitals in America, and of course needed a dependable route to the big capital. And at the time Knoxville was founded, Knoxville's territorial governor answered to the president—who was George Washington.

Maybe both theories are wrong. Maybe Washington Pike got that name because it led directly to George Washington himself.

Yours sincerely,

Gen. Z. Heraclitus Knox

Have a historical quandary that needs a solution? Give the good doctor a prod at editor@metropulse.com.