Pictures of the downtown riverfront at mid-century

The other morning, I was riding my bike to work along Volunteer Landing when I saw a little commotion ahead. A father and two boys, maybe 7 or 8, peering over the railing into the water beneath the Henley St. Bridge. "Cool!" the boys were saying.

I stopped and looked over the railing myself. Just below us was a fair-sized vessel, listing hard to starboard and half sunk in the water by the rocky shore. Though there was still some orange-and-white plastic bunting on the bow, most of the boat above the water line was blackened and mangled. There was no name visible, but askew on the stern was a metal sign that still said, in large darkened steel letters, Vols.

There's something poignant about a wrecked ship, even when it's just a Vol Navy pleasure boat in shallow water. It's hard for any statue or fountain or a convention center to compete with a burnt-out hull. You can spend a lot of money on architects and sculptors and contractors, but when it's all finished, kids may never run up to it and say, "Cool!"

I don't know what this vessel's current status is, but I'd propose that the city buy the hulk and keep it there as a tourist attraction. On the anniversary of the wreck, we could read poetry over it and throw leis and flower petals at it.

It could also be a reminder that we're all trespassing here. Over half a century ago, this was a riverfront community known as Vanntown. This burnt-out boat is about the only thing on Volunteer Landing that wouldn't have looked out of place back then.

Earlier this summer, some friends and I spent a hot Saturday reading passages from Cormac McCarthy's novel, Suttree, at the places described in the book. Much of the book takes place down here on the riverfront. The title character lives in a drum-floated houseboat moored between the Henley and Gay Street Bridges.

I first read Suttree about 20 years ago, and pictured his descriptions of a dense, eccentric riverside community as it was, circa 1951: in the book it seems almost a city unto itself, a residential underworld of houseboats and shacks.

I'm not old enough to remember the riverfront before Neyland Drive. Most of the older folks I've talked to don't remember people living down here. I tried to research it in the old City Directories, but didn't find many residential addresses along the riverfront. Photographs, as far as I knew, were nonexistent. Over the years, I began to have my doubts. I began to wonder if McCarthy's eccentric riverfront ghetto was a literary exaggeration.

Then, a few months ago, I was doing some work at TVA, and librarian Ed Best directed me to a very interesting document. Bound in black, it's a photographic survey of Knoxville's old riverfront communities as they were in 1941. TVA was documenting all the people who lived on the shorelines that might be affected by the Fort Loudoun Dam impoundment.

As it turns out, there were several neighborhoods down here, each with its own character, according to the TVA report, "separated because of topography or the clannish tendencies of the people." Shacktown was mostly east of the Gay Street Bridge, and was composed of "strangely built substandard shacks," according to the TVA report, which could almost have been lifted from Suttree: "The houses are a ludicrous composite of scrap, gleaned from various sources and worked into the stilted hovels perched on tall wooden legs to escape frequent flooding."

Some are pictured. One was built on tall pilings into the 45-degree hillside. "Home of two elderly bachelors," goes the caption. "One a T.B. victim, the other a one-legged man." Another tin shack was located on a jungly sand bar, surrounded by water and accessible by a catwalk.

Vanntown was west of Market Street: "This is the oldest and most colorful section of the entire river frontage, where rivermen have had their haunts since the founding of Knoxville," the report states, "and where their grandsons still hold forth with little improvement over their ancestors." According to the report, "bootlegging [was] the sole source of income for several families."

Named for the predominance of people named Vann, Vanntown was "characterized by the number of beached houseboats in all stages of depreciation." The representative photograph is the most striking picture in the whole survey: a stranded two-story houseboat with a long ramp as an entrance. A girl in a dress stands in a doorway. The Henley Street Bridge is in the background. It appears to be right at the center of Volunteer Landing.

"Beached houseboat home," the caption reads. "Occupants have recovered many bodies after riverboat tragedies."

There were other, smaller squatter communties to the east and west, one in what's now the UT area, occupying the ruins of defunct barge-building businesses. On the south side, near the Rose Lumber Co., was still another neighborhood called Roseville, where "shacks are crowded almost bumper to bumper."

TVA's report included a census of Knoxville's downtown riverfront squatters. Some were rag pickers, some fishermen, some laundresses, some bootleggers: in all, there were 115 adults and 59 children living down here.

Some of those children may still be alive. I wonder if they ever come back to Volunteer Landing and have a look.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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