Wading Into Knoxville's Slag Heaps and Forgotten Fens

Dear Doc Knox:

Not including the river, where was Knoxville's first city dump/landfill?


My Dear Mr. Airmack:

We assume by not including the river, we're also excusing First and Second creeks, which were used as dumps probably from the first time James White's kids took out the trash in 1786.

We can't be certain what any cluster of citizens might have considered a dump. But the first dump we know of on actual land was, believe it or not, right on Gay Street, what's now the 300-400 block.

Two centuries ago, the block of Gay northeast of the intersection of Gay and Union offered a dropoff way down toward First Creek's floodplain. The bank was so steep it was considered impossible to develop commercially by the architecture and resources of the day, and whether by city permission or not, citizens began using it as a dump. Before the Civil War, the area was north of the main business section, and probably didn't bother anybody much.

It was a pretty big area, though, and, then as now, flat land was a rarity in the downtown area, so occasionally the townsfolk would clear a space for another use, for a circus, for example, or, in 1865, for what may have been the first baseball game ever played in Tennessee. The steep hill up to Gay offered a natural amphitheater.

The dump/ballfield era finally ended in the 1880s, when boom-town Knoxville began building very large buildings, tall enough to address the Gay Street sidewalk but planted in the old dump. Most of them burned down in the Great Fire of 1897, but were quickly rebuilt, and that's what you see when you visit, say, Sapphire, the Downtown Grill, the Art Market, or Mast.

Dear Doc Knox:

Have you ever heard of the fen known as Shityronto? I was told it was a most vile and ugly place with all manner of critters: a repository of animals and on occasion associates who failed to pay debts owed. When one was missing from the Old City district, the first place to search was Shityronto. This was told to me by my great-uncle, Mr. Harve E. Rogers. He was a self-made man, whose family moved to Knoxville in 1902. This marsh was on the east side of Central, just past the railroad tracks, now the site of the Greyhound bus station. This fen was filled in when work started on Magnolia Avenue. I can find no mention of it at the McClung Collection anywhere. This site made quite an impact on a young 15-year-old new to Knoxville in 1902, who, after arriving here at 9 at night in a mule-pulled wagon and only gas lights every 100 feet or so, had to pass the vile fen known then as—Shityronto.


My Dear Robert:

With your permission, we have nominated that as the question of the year. My research eunuchs have attempted to look up Shityronto on the Web. Apparently the word, if it is indeed a word, has never before been typed onto a website anywhere in the world. It is a Knoxville original. I hesitate even to speculate about a derivation.

I have reason to believe there is some truth in your family story. However, it might require some adjustments to the time period, and/or the precise spot.

It wouldn't likely have been precisely where the Greyhound station is in 1902, because that block was built out with urban development even in the late 1800s. (See our answer, from a couple of years ago, to a question about a medicine bottle.) Also the area just north of the railroad tracks was dominated after 1885 by the large White Lily factory, where men worked late shifts manufacturing the world's purest flour, rendering it unlikely anything right next door would be consistently sinister.

However, a lot of the area just north of what is now known as the Old City was indeed a big swamp in the mid-19th century. It was known in the early 19th century as the Flag Pond, perhaps a more becoming name than Shityronto. Though it was sometimes used for recreation, such as sailing toy boats, it was at times also dreaded as a health hazard and Knoxville's primary supplier of stench.

It diminished by degrees as one project after another filled it in, beginning around 1840; when the railroad came through in 1855, tons of earth was dumped into it. You don't see as much reference to it thereafter. I would have thought the old Flag Pond wetlands had all been filled in before 1902. But perhaps some pool of it survived, or emerged during wet seasons.

We might also note that First Creek was still exposed in those days, and was only a block or two southeast of the spot you're describing, where it hooked to the east roughly along what's now Willow Street, and then took a northeasterly course. It likely had some wetlands, fens as you say, associated with it.

Your use of the word fen, a word heard more often in Ireland than here, is interesting and appropriate: this area was a fringe of what was known, 100 to 140 years ago, as Irish Town.

Yours Truly,

Z. Heraclitus Knox

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