Rare Historical Site Ensnared by West Knox Development. Does That Matter?

On a windy Sunday afternoon off Stoney Point, Fort Loudoun Lake is a choppy ocean of whitecaps as men sit on the bank in folding chairs and watch several lines in the water. Brightly painted pleasure boats slap along the waves, and children laugh on the shore. Here, today, the broad water looks like a harbor.

The fishermen and laughing children are all in a well-kept green space called Admiral Farragut Park. On the other side of the inlet is no one at all, only trees and undergrowth. If you peer across the inlet through the trees, you may be able to see a rectangular chunk of marble, larger than a sea chest, much larger than any ordinary man's gravestone.

No one is over there. You can't get there in good clothes. The unmarked one-lane road that once led to the point is fenced off and going wild. But the block of pink Tennessee marble is engraved with words recorded in newspapers all over the country, 110 years ago: "BIRTHPLACE OF ADMIRAL FARRAGUT / BORN JULY 5, 1801...."

The little plot of land by the water has been in the news lately, the subject of a development controversy. The United States Navy's first admiral, the hero of Mobile Bay, famous for the order, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead," spent his earliest years there. His larger-than-life statues stand guard in Boston's Marine Park, New York's Madison Square, and Washington's busy Farragut Square.

Our humbler monument, donated for the public benefit by the Daughters of the American Revolution, has been there since May 1900, when Admiral George Dewey traveled hundreds of miles to see the shore where his personal hero and former commanding officer was born. The Hero of Manila Bay and probably the most universally admired U.S. veteran in America in 1900 arrived in a three-riverboat flotilla. Brass bands played "America" and "The Star Spangled Banner" before the stone, draped with a battle flag from the U.S.S. Hartford, Farragut's flagship.

Dewey himself unveiled it. Among the speakers was Col. L.D. Tyson, U.S. military veteran and son of a Confederate veteran, who had helped determine the site's importance. The dedication made national news. Knox County was so proud of that day its citizens began naming things for Farragut.

For decades, the monument was easy to read by the hundreds who used the free, county funded Lowe's Ferry every week. But then the ferry closed, and it slipped out of public view. The site is now on private land, and the current landowner means to redevelop Stoney Point as a private upscale lakefront subdivision. She received full approval from the Metropolitan Planning Commission last year. That approval surprised some preservation-minded folks, and has become well-known in the community only recently.

Farragut is the most celebrated military man ever born in Knox County. The dilemma pits patriotic heritage against property rights. It's a sort of ethical conundrum that seems designed for a psychological test, to determine exactly what sort of Republicans we are.

***Charles Faulkner, a University of Tennessee anthropology professor and Knoxville's most experienced historical archaeologist, has kept a secret for the last couple of years. In 2008, the current property owner allowed him to do some quiet preliminary looking around. He was surprised how quickly he found what he was looking for. "I did find some 18th-century material, ceramics very typical of the 1790s," he says. "The same kind of stuff we found at Blount Mansion, the same kind of stuff we found at the John Sevier home."

After a second day of sampling, though, the owner withdrew permission. Disappointed, Faulkner hoped to hear more. He tried to contact the owner, who didn't respond. "I'm not very aggressive," he admits. He suspects the owner is worried that an important historical find might complicate her project. What he found convinced him that he had evidence of the Farragut homeplace. "There's no question," Faulkner says.

It would confirm an opinion library scholars have arrived at, repeatedly, for more than a century. It might also shed new light on a hero's unusual youth. Farragut is a Spanish name; the admiral's father, the man who built the cabin and who established a ferry at Stoney Point, was a seaman from Minorca, Spain. He came to America in the 1770s and fought the British. Though he spoke Spanish much better than English, he joined the first American patriots. His friendship with Gov. William Blount brought him to Tennessee, the only time of his life he didn't live on a seacoast. He lived in Knox County for about 15 years, married a local girl, eventually moved out here to start a ferry service. You can look for other examples of Spanish-immigrant pioneer homesteads hereabouts. I don't know of any.

Faulkner is interested to see how it might differ from others, what clues it might offer about the little-known early life of the Farraguts. He also suspects it might be of interest during the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial.

In 1946-48, the Tennessee Historical Commission spearheaded an effort to make a National Park of Stoney Point, perhaps with a museum, a symbolic lighthouse, and a replica of the Farragut home. The owner at the time, Farragut scholar and Republican politician Harley Fowler, was cooperative. Congressmen including our own Republican Rep. John Jennings signed on. It's not clear what happened to the plan.

"I want to see the site preserved, I really do," Faulkner says. Though he and many others would like to see it preserved as a public park, "If they preserve the site, and the monument, maybe that's all we can hope for."

In any case, the community, and history, appear to be at the mercy of the owner. Whether development will be allowed appears to be out of the public's hands, unless perhaps a persuasive amount of money could be raised to buy it. Just a quarter acre would answer most of history's concerns.