Knoxville's Lost Cable Car

So, why did people want to ride up to Cherokee Bluffs?

Dear Doc Knox:

Thank you for your recent article on Papermill Drive and the old paper mill.

How about recounting the story of the 19th-century cable car across Holston River from Neyland Drive to Cherokee Bluffs. What was the big attraction up there at that time? Cable? Who financed and operated it?

Was it really Victor's first attempt at annexation?

D.H. (Andy) Andrew, A Knox County Neighbor

My Dear Mr. Andrew:

It's safe to say that no human is old enough to remember one of the Seven Wonders of Ancient Knoxville, our briefly amazing cable car. A privately financed attraction built around 1893, it existed primarily to thrill Knoxvillians and their guests, and to convey them in small batches upward, through mid-air, high above the river's surface, to what was then conceived to be an exalted "pleasure resort"—a large public park—on the top of the bluffs, 350 feet above the surface of the river.

As we understand it, the town side of the cable was in the vicinity of Third Creek, near the University of Tennessee's botanical gardens. Its construction was rather remarkable at the time, more so considering that the city had just built its first conventional electric streetcars about three years earlier. Supported by two permanent cables, a third pulling cable conveyed the "aerial ferry" back and forth to the top of the cliff by means of a 20-horsepower engine. For a brief while, it was a popular way to spend a Victorian Sunday afternoon.

It operated at least until a fatal accident in February 1894.

A young attorney named Oliver Ledgerwood was killed when a pulling cable snapped, perhaps—though this was never proven—as the result of sabotage. The supporting cables held fast, but the car, which was almost all the way to the top, slid violently backward. The pulling cable tangled with the other cables, causing the car to stop suddenly in mid-air, perhaps preventing a worse catastrophe.

Unable to get the car all the way down—it was tangled far above the river surface—some enterprising men on a "steam yacht" below somehow got a rope up to the car, and rescued the surviving passengers, one by one.

There's a particularly fascinating account of it, commencing on page 46 in Jack Neely's recent book, Knoxville: This Obscure Prismatic City, illustrated with the only known photograph of the thing. We would recount it further, but wish to avoid the appearance of plagiarizing Mr. Neely.

Ironically, the cable car received what was probably its greatest national fame only after the catastrophe that ended it. The "Aerial Cable Railway" got front-page treatment, with illustrations, in the March 17, 1894, issue of Scientific American. It mentioned the fatal accident, but emphasized the functionality of the invention. Whether it operated afterwards is not clear.

There remains much to learn, including specifics of financing, which eluded our research drones. Some scholarly speculation strongly suggests that that bluff-top park was the unspecified project on which Frederick Law Olmsted was working when he spent some time in Knoxville in 1893. The park was never completed, perhaps due to the recession of that era, or perhaps due to the disappointment with the cable car, which would have been the easiest way to get to it in those days when there were no bridges as near as either the Henley Street or the Alcoa Highway bridges today.

One part of the bluff's appeal, even then, was historical. Civil War enthusiasts—I have the impression there were fewer then than there are now—were interested in the role that bluff played in the 1863 Siege of Knoxville. The bluffs were then often known as Longstreet's Heights, because the Confederate general's artillery commander had cannon emplacements there, in late 1863, trained on Union Fort Sanders, which turned out to be barely out of effective range. When he realized it was a losing battle, anxious about the Union folks acquiring their heavy artillery, the Confederates dumped their cannons into the river, where they may still be today, though we might expect them to be pretty rusty by now. Up there today is a gated condominium development.

A couple of gentle corrections to terminology. You probably know that Neyland Drive did not exist in those days. When they built the cable car, the general was a toddler, and living in Texas. The road by the river was known, logically, as Front Street.

However, the river that flowed through Knoxville—which had indeed been known as the Holston from frontier days through the Civil War—was not still known as the Holston in the 1890s. By then it was universally known as the Tennessee.

There's a widely believed, and apparently fairly recent, truism—broadcast for quite some time by on our favorite source, Wikipedia—that the Tennessee Valley Authority changed the name of the Holston to the Tennessee in the 1930s, allegedly to justify Knoxville's place as capital of TVA. However, Knoxville's segment of the river was known as the Tennessee by the late 1880s, and was codified as such by a federal statute in 1890.

There were political reasons to rename it, having to do with the wording of state support for river navigation. But as early as the 1790s, some were already observing that, given the relative size of the various streams, calling the river the Tennessee through Knoxville made more sense.

About longtime Mayor Victor Ashe's first attempt at annexation: Why do you think they called it the Victorian Era, anyway?

Yr. Obt. Svt.,

Z. Heraclitus Knox, a Scientific American

Come one, come all! Dr. Knox answers your questions regarding the history of the Knoxville metropolis. Send all your queries, big or small, to editor@metropulse.com.


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