Knoxville's Atlantis

A wondrous Victorian neighborhood that never was: Cherokee

Dear Doc Knox:

In our office we have a map on the wall showing Knox County in 1895. On the horseshoe bend on the south side of the Tennessee River (the site of the former UT Ag Farm), west of what is now the Buck Karnes Bridge, a street grid is shown similar to downtown. The area is labeled "CHEROKEE." I wasn't around in 1895, but my memory goes back to the late 1940s, and I do not recall ever seeing any development there except barns and fields for the university. Was this developed at one time?

John Dempster, Knoxville

My Dear Mr. Dempster:

It's a timely question, considering the university's high-tech Cherokee Farm campus project on that very site, and it has a pretty fascinating answer. We wonder what those bulldozers might be turning up.

The map you refer to is one of our favorites. A framed color copy hangs on the wall of the Calvin McClung Collection, and oft distracts Dr. Knox from his important investigations. In general, the street layouts seem accurate, not indicating streets where none existed. Cherokee may well be an exception. Think of it as our Atlantis.

The Cherokee anomaly has puzzled us for years—­that river peninsula grid of blocks, yes, like a downtown, but a perfect sort of downtown, with river views on three sides.

Like most perfect things, Cherokee probably never existed. It may never have been anything but a community of cattle, enjoying these picturesque pastures.

The Cherokee Addition first appears in detail in a wonderful promotional insert published in the Knoxville Tribune in 1891. Cherokee was to be a 60-square-block development with several hundred homes, a couple of parks, and six boat landings, spaced all the way around the peninsula. Part of the eastern shore was to be called Manhattan Beach. It was carefully planned around a central circle. Wrapping around the whole thing, along the waterfront, were two parallel boulevards in a concentric design: East and West Esplanade on the outside, and East and West Boulevard on the inside. Other streets were named for Eastern Indian terms, like Muskingum, Delaware, Narragansett, Swananoah. One of the small parks was to be called Alabama Park. (It probably didn't seem odd, as it was long before any football rivalry that would make such a name suspect.)

The promotional literature gives us a glimpse of the paradise contemplated: West Knoxville—what we now think of as Fort Sanders—"is rapidly growing in population, constantly increasing the number of her handsome residences, while CHEROKEE, her charming sister, separated from West Knoxville only by the Tennessee River, will be joined to her by the Company's magnificent steel bridge, to be completed January 1, 1892, which will be the handsomest highway bridge in the South." (That part was built; the bridge, sometimes known as the "Cherokee Bridge," was apparently torn down in the 1930s.)

"With magnificent scenery, beautiful parks, lovely drives, modern sanitary improvement, water from nature's purest springs, gas, electric lights and electric cars to the business center of the city, investments in Cherokee property will bring handsome returns. In addition to these advantages, the company's steamer, Vollette, will make regular trips every hour from the foot of Gay Street to the property."

One of the prospective developers, the president of the Cherokee Land Co., was J.C.J. Williams, prominent East Knoxvillian whose one-time home still stands on Riverside Drive. A judge and sometime city alderman, he was a great-uncle of playwright Tennessee Williams.

Cherokee appears in at least two maps from 1895, as if it already existed. One map indicates street names similar to those in the 1891 plan. However, in neither map was the street layout as elaborate as in the original plans. We suspect the pocket depression known as the Panic of 1893 played a role in amending plans, and eventually spoiling them.

Cherokee was a development planned but never completed. That's the opinion of Knoxville historian Ron Allen, who mentions the "Cherokee Addition" in his book, Knox-stalgia, an interesting compendium of details about not-quite-forgotten Knoxville places. Mr. Allen refers to Cherokee as a "failed residential community." Though streets were graded, he claims no homes were ever built on the site. We find no reason to argue.

Allen notes that Cherokee seems to have given up the ghost in 1896. He says other speculators owned it before Knox County bought it in 1915 to donate to the University of Tennessee, which has controlled it ever since.

The nomenclature is provocative. Hardly anything in Knoxville was ever named Cherokee before 1890. But then, perhaps beginning with this development, the word Cherokee came into vogue. Downtown's Cherokee Building followed, then Cherokee Country Club in 1907, followed a few years later by Cherokee Boulevard, ca. 1925, within view of the lost community of Cherokee. In some ways, Sequoyah Hills, with its parks, Indian names, and circumferential boulevard may be a watered-down version of the paradise once offered by Cherokee.

And somehow the name Cherokee has hung onto that particular peninsula, from the Cherokee dream of 1891 to the Cherokee Farm development of the 21st century.

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

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Added a paragraph mentioning Tennessee Williams' great uncle.