Maritime Gone By

An exhibit of steamboat lore, and the new Farragut statue

For a guy who claims to be interested in local history, I don't get to Crescent Bend as much as I ought to. The riverfront antebellum house on Kingston Pike, near the University Club, is one of the dozen or so oldest houses in Knoxville, and is open to the public. Though it's close in, it's hard to get to except in a car. I don't have any cars that look good enough to be seen in its circular driveway.

It's got some interesting historic rooms, a permanent exhibit of collected antique silver, and in the back, terraced fountains, with spouting frogs and interesting arrangements of flowers and trimmed boxwoods. A walk down to the river is a worthwhile way to spend an autumn afternoon, if you don't mind some steps. There are, by my count, 111.

It seems as if it would be a good place to contemplate Knoxville's rarely discussed riverboat history, considering the house was built in 1834, when the first generation of sternwheelers were churning past its shore, and this fall, the stout old house offers some study assistance in that regard. I stopped in last week to see my friend Bob Davis' exhibit on East Tennessee steamboat history. Bob's a man of many enthusiasms; he recently mounted an exhibit about the history of barbershop singing here, and is contemplating an exhibit about the history of the Boy Scouts and maybe one about the history of bridge construction.

The display takes up a room on the second floor, and is mostly composed of photocopied articles and a few photographs and old color lithographs. But it represents the best collection of riverboat lore in one place I've ever encountered. Riverboating was a big deal in Knoxville for about a century, even if it wasn't always pretty. In pictures, the riverboats of the upper Tennessee look creaky, especially when you compare them to Currier and Ives' famous color lithograph of the race between the Natchez and the Eclipse.

Bob turned up a lot of stories I'd never heard a rumor about. Like the 1872 collision, on the river near Dayton, of the riverboats Converse and the Last Chance, which was the end of the former.

And who knew this: The double-decker riverboat Knoxville, known for running from the Gulf to the Tennessee River, blew up in New Orleans in 1850, damaging or destroying several ships around it, including the Ne Plus Ultra. Death tolls were sometimes approximate in those dangerous days. Here's how the newspaper report went: there were "18 passengers on the boat at the time of the accident, a majority of whom were killed or missing." (How many passengers did you lose? "Aw, most of 'em.")

The ship was mostly recovered and refurbished, but they should have known the Knoxville was cursed. It was finished off in another fire, also in New Orleans, five years later.

The Mary Byrd, expected in Knoxville, sank in the Suck below Chattanooga, in 1870. The Hugh Martin blew up between Chattanooga and Kingston in 1875. "The body of Captain Fritz was seen flying through the air, but it was not found afterward."

There's an intimate memory of the Water Lily, which sank in Knoxville in the late 1880s. And there's something about the J.W. Russell, which sank on the French Broad in 1895, and the Lucile Borden, a Knoxville-based boat, whose boiler exploded in 1899.

And there's the bizarre story of the Niota, a tugboat that, after a series of gasoline explosions, caught fire on the river here in 1916, and was drifting down the river ablaze until Knoxville firemen "lassoed" it. I'll be obliged to write that story someday.

It looks like the median lifespan for a riverboat on the Tennessee was about six years.

One little portion of the exhibit concerns the most memorable riverboat incident in Knoxville history that doesn't involve something actually exploding or sinking. That was the flotilla, in 1900, of journalists and dignitaries including Admiral George Dewey from the wharf at downtown Knoxville to Stoney Point, near Concord, to dedicate the monument at the birthplace of the admiral's personal hero, Admiral Farragut. The monument is still there today, barely visible across the inlet from Admiral Farragut Park on Northshore, but the site is on private property, and the subject of a development controversy.

The other morning I drove out to Farragut, the town, and had a good look at the new statue of the admiral, which is more impressive than I'd assumed. Standing in the middle of a handsome circular park, he's got his arms crossed, looking off toward Lenoir City, with some concern. Beside him are a couple of genuine artifacts, a cannon from Farragut's famous ship, the Hartford, and another from the Independence. It's well done, one of the best-looking memorial statues in the area.

I've seen similar statues of Farragut in Washington and New York, but until a recent documentary about sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, I didn't realize his 1881 New York statue of Farragut, a major milestone in the career of one of America's most famous sculptors, mentions he was "born near Knoxville," prominently and rather artfully, in the inscription, alongside a comely mythological figure in bas relief.

Around the statue in Farragut, Tenn., is an appropriate amount of text in marble, if not quite as artful.

The only thing missing is some mention of his ethnic heritage. It lists his father as "George Farragut," who "served in Revolutionary War Navy," and came to Knoxville in 1792 and later started a ferry across the river. Unmentioned is that he was also a veteran of earlier naval wars in Europe. He was a Spaniard from Minorca, a Revolutionary War veteran who never learned to speak English very well.

Whether applied to a town or an admiral, Farragut is a Spanish name. American heroes who are sons of Spanish-speaking immigrants are right rare. Farragut has become a point of pride for the local Hispanic community, and it might have been nice, in all this inscribed text, to acknowledge that heritage.