Viaduct Con Dios
A photographic look at a Gay Street landmark
photos by Tracy Jackson
Downtown Knoxville is an island of sorts, the tip of a hill with its surrounding valleys populated by concrete highways, railroad tracks and slow-running streams. There was a time (and perhaps those days are returning) when a person could spend the bulk of his or her days within the grid of streets upon the hill without approaching the precipice where roads led down towards the river, the train station, or the burbling creeks.
Today, and for a very long time, the graceful arms of bridges and viaducts reach out from the core of downtown into the avenues that lead into the city’s nearest neighborhoods and outlying sectors, conveying vehicles and pedestrians over the expanse of otherwise non-navigable territory.
Built in 1919, the Gay Street viaduct channels traffic out of downtown’s central business district and over the parallel rows of trains below. Before the structure’s construction, Gay Street dipped steeply from Summit Hill towards the Southern rail yard, proving tricky for pedestrians and vehicles climbing the steep hill. The McClung collection contains a photograph of uniformed doughboys marching toward locomotives that would deliver them to military bases and embattlements across the ocean.
As the viaduct was built, engineers raised up the street of the 100 block to meet the bridge, successfully regrading Gay Street into the level surface we know today. The adjustment put underground an entire floor of buildings on the east side of the street. A stretch of that original sidewalk can now be seen through a window in the downstairs of the Emporium building.
Old postcards proudly present watercolored images of the viaduct conveying streetcars and Model-T Fords caught mid-cruise down its five lanes. Designed by the Southern Railway, the concrete structure—neither overly ornate nor bland—is portrayed as an architectural aspect of a booming city, as significant as its City Hall or its mansions.
After 86 years of supporting the weight of a steadily increasing number of automobiles (it now holds two rows of parking spaces), the viaduct shows serious signs of decay, cracks and fissures. In places its pebbled surface resembles the hull of a ship crusted with barnacles, bleached out by years of weather. And, in the harsh light of a summer day, the viaduct doesn’t look half as romantic as its postcard version of yesteryear. Modern cars are relatively ugly; yellow curbs, parking meters and contemporary streetlights overhanging the scene don’t help much either. But when traffic slows down in the twilight hours, a pedestrian can recapture some of the viaduct’s charms, particularly when a train comes chugging along underneath. Most cars now contain coal or mysterious chemicals, but years ago the trains hauled passengers, some as famous as the deceased body of William Jennings Bryan. And it’s easy to imagine waiting on the overpass for the arrival of a loved one traveling home.
The delicate iron gate that keeps people from descending steps that don’t ever reach the ground lends that side of the viaduct the romance of a garden wall. The moment is enhanced when the orange glow of sunset reflects brightly off the surrounding red brick.
Although it’s clearly in need of replacement—due to decay and the railroad’s need to shuttle double-decker freight cars underneath—the viaduct stands among downtown’s most prominent architectural figures, as much as any building its age. Knox Heritage, the organization committed to preserving our city’s historical elements, has placed the viaduct, and its fellow structures set for repair or replacement, on a list called the Fragile 15.
“It is important to downtown Knoxville that the new design of these portals be appropriate to the historic areas they serve,” goes the group’s statement, “and serve as gateways connecting the downtown renaissance with the surrounding historic neighborhoods.”
With encroaching decay and desire for progress, the Gay Street viaduct will be torn down and replaced with a new bridge that will arch higher over the railroad tracks to allow for taller railcars. But before that happens, we wanted to take a photographic look at one of downtown’s busiest viaducts. It will be missed.