Tracking Down the Mythical Paper Mill of Papermill Drive

Dear Doc Knox,

Was there once an actual paper mill on Papermill Drive?

J. Brian Long

My Dear Sir:

The short answer to that short question is Yes, indeed, there was.

Because Dr. Knox is not a man of short answers, a response of some dignified length follows.

Papermill Drive is well over a century old, a Methuselah by the standards of West Knoxville street nomenclature. Dating back to an era long before suburban streets were named for fictional historic sites, vanished natural features, and British tourist attractions, Papermill is something of a freak, named for a historic landmark that actually existed.

Paper was one of Knoxville's early industries, dating to when the city was the state's capital and, hence, publishing center. The governance a new state called for the publication of hundreds of legal and administrative documents and books to be sent from Elizabethton in the east to Chickasaw Bluffs, on the Mississippi, and even to the modest little river town of Nashville in between. Knoxville was the home of Tennessee's first newspaper, and there were more than a dozen periodicals published in Knoxville during the city's first 50 years. So there was plenty of demand for paper here, but Knoxville's publishers sometimes reached beyond Tennessee's boundaries. Book publishing—even the first novels published in Tennessee were published in Knoxville—continued to be a significant concern into the 1840s.

Knoxville became a major regional general-purpose paper supplier, and notably was the source of the paper for the first printed Indian-language newspaper in history, the Cherokee Phoenix. Though it was actually published in Georgia, its editors ordered the necessary paper from Knoxville.

The paper mill of Papermill Drive was Knoxville's best-known such institution of the middle 19th century, thanks to a pair of prominent entrepreneurs. Marcus DeLafayette Bearden (1799-1854) was a downtown tavernkeeper's son, and one of the city's pioneer riverboatmen, sometimes known as Captain Bearden. By 1838, he was running a paper mill just west of town with his cousin, sometime alderman Gideon Hazen.

The paper mill, powered by Third Creek most of the year, was supplemented by steam power when the water was too low to run the waterwheel. (Third Creek may be best known for its greenway, and the fact that it runs through Tyson Park, and between UT and its ag campus. However, upstream it meanders considerably westward.)

The paper mill survived both its founders. It burned spectacularly one December night in 1869, a nighttime fire whose glow could be seen from Gay Street, but was rebuilt. According to former Mayor William Rule's 1900 history of Knoxville, it didn't close permanently until a dam failure in 1886.

So it operated as a paper mill for not quite half a century. But it remained well known as a landmark for some years afterward.

We're not sure exactly when the road that went by the paper mill got that formal monicker, but it may involve an interesting conundrum that reminds us of some of the cryptic lyrics of Mr. Bob Dylan. Papermill Drive used to be older than it is now. Before World War II, some of you may recall, it was known as Old Paper Mill Road. Not, we gather, for the usual reason roads get the "Old" prefix, that it was an older road by that name superseded by a newer one. Old Paper Mill Road was called that because it was the road that went by the Old Paper Mill.

A large and fascinating 1895 map of Knox County hangs at the McClung Collection, and includes an intriguing notation indicating a site known then, during Grover Cleveland's presidency, as the "Old Paper Mill." It appears as if it was at the eastern end of modern-day Papermill Drive, maybe a quarter-mile west of Liberty Street.

It would be an understandable assumption that the community of Bearden is named for the paper tycoon known as Captain Bearden, whose paper mill was nearby. Alas, history is rarely so tidy. Bearden existed as a small rural community during Captain Bearden's lifetime, but was then known as "Erin" or "Crippen."

Bearden, the community as we know it today, was named for another, much younger fellow who also happened to be known as Captain Marcus DeLafayette Bearden. Who was some sort of kin the other Captain Bearden, but not his son.

The two Captain M.D. Beardens weren't very closely associated with each other. The younger Captain Bearden was only 24 when the other died. But young Captain M.D. Bearden became a Union officer (that's where he got the rank), then Mayor of Knoxville, then state legislator who obtained funding for a mental hospital that became a major employer for the old Erin neighborhood that a grateful public renamed itself for him. Then called the Lyons View Insane Asylum, it's today known as Lakeshore.

And yes, as it happens, there was also a real North Shore. If you're lucky enough to know someone who owns property along it, they may show it to you.

Yr. Obt. Svt.

Capt. Z. Heraclitus Knox, MDB

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.