Dear Doc Knox:
We have 11th through 22nd Streets in Fort Sanders, and I remember 10th Street before the World's Fair. But were there ever First through Ninth Streets?
Joseph T. Corbell
My Dear Mr. Corbell:
Well, the short answer is Yes. With an asterisk, followed by an extensive further annotation.
History, sir, is not for the timid. The current street names seem old, and are. 11th Street has been known as 11th Street for close to 90 years. There may be no one alive who recalls when it was called anything different. But they're not the first names these old streets have gone by. They're not even the second.
Here we should interject a discursive story that may or may not be relevant. The numbered streets of Fort Sanders are seemingly unrelated to the numbered avenues on the north side of downtown, whose origins are a little mysterious and not necessarily sensible. Their origins are at least as puzzling. Of the numbered "avenues," Third through Ninth survive, some of them in bits and pieces. (We hypothesized about it a few years ago in a column that can be accessed at metropulse.com.)
Knoxville's First and Second Avenues are the most mysterious. They were never much to begin with, materializing only briefly on the north side of town, in what was then just beyond corporate city limits, in the 1850s. They both vanished during the Civil War, perhaps lasting less than five years.
But back to your question, and Fort Sanders' famous ordinal numeration.
When this war-scarred battlefield was first developed in the years after the Civil War, its north-south streets were bestowed with proper-name names: beginning on the east side, Morrow, Scott, Blount, John, Ann, Dickinson, Temple, and Ft. Sanders Avenue. That last street, roughly the one we now know as 17th, earned that name by the fact that it led up to the ruins of the old federal earthworks, which were still visible until the very early 1900s.
For most of the 19th century, this area was considered rural countryside. The City of Knoxville's western boundary was at Second Creek—bisecting what's now World's Fair Park. After mostly affluent people began to build houses here, they began to realize it would behoove them to organize a municipal government of some sort. So in the late 1880s, they incorporated as "West Knoxville."
For reasons of their own, the suburbanites dumped the old proper names in favor of numbered streets. The Knoxville newspapers made a little fun of them, suggesting they were trying to give their bedroom community a bit of Manhattan flair, and maybe they were. Many Laurel Avenue types summered in New York.
Presumably the numbers started with a First Street, in the vicinity of Second Creek, then an industrial bottomland with railroad tracks multiplying on it. But it's not clear there was ever anything with its formal address on First Street, hence references to it are scant. Second Street, though, was what you remember as 10th, now roughly World's Fair Drive. Third Street was what's now 11th. And so on.
In 1897, the city of Knoxville had enough of this "West Knoxville" foolishness and annexed the whole thing, after which it tended to be better known as "West End" (the neighborhood wasn't very consistently known as "Fort Sanders" until the 1950s). But the streets remained in place, First Street through roughly 14th Street, without regard to the greater municipal entity's north-south axis and naming patterns. In James Agee's youth, for example, that's how they were. Until recently, at least, a few Fort Sanders street corners still bore brass signage, embedded in the sidewalk, indicating numbered streets exactly eight blocks off, like "Fifth Street" on modern-day 13th Street. We haven't noticed them lately; they may have been casualties of handicap-accessibility improvements.
But then, about 1924, the city renumbered West End's streets to conform to their city addresses—by shifting them all by a factor of eight. What does eight represent? Literally, I suppose, that eight represents the eight blocks from Second Creek, at the old eastern edge of West Knoxville, to Knoxville's defining north-south axis, Central Street. Hence 11th Street today is 11 blocks from Central.
Changing street names is a traumatic and usually unpopular thing, because everyone must change their addresses. Fortunately there were relatively few addresses on the numbered streets, most houses facing the longer avenues.
But it occurs to us that one motive for the numbering change might have been the existence of Third through Ninth Avenues, back on the north side of town. The numbers excised from Fort Sanders were the same numbers that already existed as avenues on the north and northeast side of town. Perhaps it prevents confusion that Knoxville has only one "Ninth," and only one "11th"—on opposite sides of downtown.
Z. Heraclitus Knox, 5th Earl of the Firth of Forth
Have you a curious point of historical reference that needs clarification? Ask Doc Knox at: firstname.lastname@example.org.