Surveying Unwelcome Changes in the Knoxville Landscape

Remarks on the unfortunate circumstances of Harris Chapel Baptist Church and UT's formerly public grove

Twin Creek Road drops unmarked off the edge of Martin Mill Pike into lush dark shade. To drive on it requires some care and a lot of trust in the goodness of anyone who might be coming in the opposite direction. Hardly more than a lane wide, the road hugs a steep hillside with some blind curves. Then, on the left, appears a sudden tragedy on a hilltop: across a graveyard, barely still standing, is the burned-out belfry of a white-painted church. Built in 1878, the Harris Chapel Baptist Church has served a mixed-race congregation for generations. It can seem remote, in this clearing in the thick woods, but it's no farther from downtown than Bearden is.

Investigators ruled the fire arson, but are still waiting to apprehend the arsonist. Posters at the corners of the graveyard offer a suggestion: "Burn an Arsonist: Earn Cash Award of up to $1,500." I hope somebody collects.

The burning of historic Harris Chapel Baptist Church was tragic for this rare predominantly black church in rural South Knox County. Its loss as a literary landmark is less important, but maybe worth mentioning.

Retired University of Tennessee Professor Wes Morgan brought this to my attention. It's one of the existing sites mentioned in the works of novelist Cormac McCarthy. Wes has made it an avocation to separate truth from fiction in McCarthy's Tennessee settings, and he is (as far as I know) the world authority on that subject. He notes that Olive Branch Negro Baptist Church, mentioned early in McCarthy's first novel, The Orchard Keeper, was based on Harris Chapel. In the book, set around 1940, it's a target of reckless young trespassers.

The Pulitzer-winning novelist's former home, which is hardly more than a mile from Harris Chapel as the crow flies—and appears prominently in his last novel, The Road—burned to the ground in January, under suspicious circumstances. Wes wondered whether an anti-McCarthy conspiracy might be afoot in the jungles of South Knox. He's kidding, I hope.

UT's effort to build sorority houses on what we've long taken for granted as a public grove along Kingston Pike between Neyland Drive and Alcoa Highway, is the subject of last-minute objections, some of them historical.

They've already begun earthmoving work, and I don't like to see it any more than anybody else does. I'll miss the trees, too, and nobody's every explained to me why a public university should be in the business of promoting exclusive social clubs.

But I doubt the objections I've heard are likely to render useful ammo. They have to do with the Civil War, of course. It's the only popular point of interest in those long, obscure generations before the Vols first beat Alabama. So naturally, historical objections to development have to do with the 1863 Siege of Knoxville. Some suggest there might be Civil War remains just below the turf. Even though that triangular stretch of land was farmed for years, it's possible. But the map in Digby Seymour's authoritative book Divided Loyalties seems to suggest that there were no Civil War embattlements on this patch. Some Confederate trenches lay a few hundreds yards both east and west of there, but not right there. It doesn't seem as if it would offer much strategic value, being mostly a downward slope. You couldn't even see the parapets of Fort Sanders unless you climbed up to eastern crest of that hill. Most of the area might have been a good place to hide from flying lead.

Of course, you never know. If it were thoroughly excavated, maybe you'd find a few poorly aimed shells, or the pelvis of a deserter who died of the measles.

Another objection has to do with a large old oak tree, on the crest of that hill. The pertinent question I've heard asked about that tree was whether it was there in 1863. Red oaks didn't take sides in that conflict, but there's a general conviction that any tree that survived the Civil War should be allowed to survive any peacetime insult. I was contemplating that question one afternoon a couple of weeks ago when I happened to encounter a local authority on the sidewalk. Tree surgeon Jim Cortese knew the tree right away, like you or I know a memorable waitress. He has admired the tree and says it's indeed well over a century old. He estimated maybe 1880, maybe older.

Even if the tree didn't witness the Civil War, it witnessed a lot, insofar as an oak can witness: the fatal malfunction of the trans-river cable car in 1894. The 1911 sinking of the Annabel King: the steamboat hit the old county bridge and became Knoxville's only registered shipwreck. The construction and dismantlement and subsequent forgetting of that bridge. Then the construction of another bridge, a couple hundred yards upstream, to connect to a new highway leading to a new town called Alcoa. The tree was still there when that new bridge was replaced with a still newer one.

It was there in 1898 when a few cocky young sports played Knoxville's first golf match at what would later be known as Tyson Park. And there when they built Tyson Junior High in 1938, and when they converted it for office use in the 1990s.

It was there when Weston Fulton built his contraption plant in 1915, and when it employed thousands during two big World War efforts, when they manufactured depth charges and bomb sights, and there more than 90 years later when the whole huge factory was torn down. It has seen, insofar as an oak can see, several fatal car wrecks on Kingston Pike, and several bodies fished out of the river, including one just this month.

But Jim says the tree has weaknesses in its deeply crevassed trunk, and constitutes what he calls a "standing hazard," which I think means you should reconsider standing near it in a wind. There's no way to save it, he says; it's just coming to the end of its natural life.

If a tree has memories, it's heavy with them.