The View from Cherokee Ridge

Once the site of a bloody Civil War battle, these bluffs are once again under siege

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Feature Story

by Kevin Crowe photos by Sheena Patrick

It was Nov. 25, 1863. Veteran Confederate troops were lined up along the river south of town, and although Union troops held Knoxville, the Confederates had the town almost completely surrounded. Captain William Parker's 6th Virginia Artillery Battery had four guns set up on the bluffs that are now home to the Cherokee Heights Condominiums. The troops of the 45th Pennsylvania Regiment had dug into their rifle pits near the mouth of Third Creek on the north side of the river and they could see the smoke rising from the forests as the artillery shells began to fire on the Union troops stationed on Armstrong's Hill. If the Confederates were able to take the cliffs on the south side of the river, they could've safely shelled Fort Sanders from afar, and attacked Knoxville from the north and the south.

It was an important battle, here on the south side of the river, because it signaled the decline of Confederate activity in this area. Almost daily the New York Times ran a feature called â“The War in Tennessee,â” keeping close tabs on troop movements around Knoxville.

The Battle of Armstrong's Hill is beleived to have taken place along what is now Cherokee Trail, the narrow, windy stretch of road that runs along the bluffs of the south waterfront. It's where amateur treasure hunters have dug hundreds of bullets and other sundry Civil War artifacts out of the Rose Property and Log Haven, two 100-acre tracts of land along the bluffs that have been recent targets of high-rise development.

So, when residents and environmental activists first caught wind of the developments on Cherokee Trail, two questions arose: Can there be a balance between historical preservation and development? And, how far should developers be allowed to go before we lose all the charm and intrinsic beauty of our mountaintops?

â“Of course we're huge property rights people in this area,â” warns Karen Bailey, of the Knox Land and Water Conservancy. â“So, if [the property owners] go by the rules and get proper permits, they can do what they like with it.â”

In other words, Knoxville's history and scenic charm are once again on the losing side in a development battle.

"This place has a wonderful history,â” says M.D. Kirkpatrick. He's sitting in the den of his home on the Log Haven property, a 100-acre tract of land that was once owned by Phillip Moffitt, the former editor of Esquire , in the Vestal community. â“When we first moved to Log Haven, I really thought that nobody was going to develop up in here. I know that everybody says it's inevitable, and that it's progress, but these guys came in here and just did a frigging mountaintop removal.â”

It took less than a week to clear-cut nearly 50 acres of trees along Cherokee Trail. Then, the bulldozers came inâ"and began to remove the hill that once stood on the north side of the property.

This â“mountaintop removalâ” is the work of Athens, Georgia-based developer David Mulkey of Dovetail Development who is refashioning the Rose Property, another 100-acre piece of land that sits slightly northwest of Log Haven. The site had belonged to the brothers Morton and Jim Roseâ"it had been with the Rose family for generationsâ"before Mulkey bought the entire property for less than $1 million in 2005.

Twenty acres of the property lie south of Cherokee Trail. Before the developers came in, the site stretched down in a steep, seemingly un-developable gulley. The rest of the property lies on the north side of the trail, overlooking the bluffs. Dovetail had proposed a three-phase buildout, a project that they had entitled â“The Woodlands.â” Phase One and Two consist of high-density student housing, and phase threeâ"still in the planning stagesâ"is supposed to be high-end luxury condominiums, according to Dovetail's attorney, Arthur Seymour.

â“[Phase Three] has not been formulated yet,â” Seymour says, â“but that would be out on the bluff. We've already sort of master-planned the area.â”

City Council had approved a grading permit, which allowed Dovetail to begin hauling tons of dirt from the northern swath of land and dump it into the gully on the south side of the trail, effectively smoothing out both sides of the property.

In just a few months, Dovetail had removed the hilltop and dumped it into the gulley.

"We really got organized during the first days when they were going to develop the Rose Property,â” Kirkpatrick continues. â“Basically, nobody's been interested. City Council sees this as an economic boon.

â“You go to City Council, man, and anytime there's a neighborhood dispute, someone will get up there and say, â‘I'm just so concerned about protecting the integrity of the neighborhood.' Well, bless your heart, but down here in Vestal, people just think this is an economically depressed area, and they think this development is a good thing. The people who live here say, â‘What about the integrity of our neighborhood?' Our neighborhood is these woods, and we like that. We think that it's beneficial to downtown Knoxville to have these woods so close.â”

â“It's like being in the mountains,â” adds Red Hickey, who may be best known for hosting the â“Hillbilly Feverâ” show on WDVX. She is also married to M.D. Kirkpatrick. â“It's wonderful, until you get there.â” She points towards the Woodlands Apartment Complex. In the early days of the development, before any of the buildings had been placed, there was a giant scar, cutting across the woods.

â“People came to us and said, â‘What can you do to save these properties?' We always have to say, as a land trust, we work with willing property owners,â” says Bailey. â“A property owner can put a conservation easement on it or donate it to the parksâ. But if it's not a willing property owner, we can't go in and make them do anything, but we can enter into conversation and negotiation. Dave Mulkey was in town, and he sat down with everybody who had an interest. He said, â‘I'm doing everything legally.'â”

Mulkey may have been doing everything legally, with approval from City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), but there was no shortage of community opposition every step of the way.

â“Communities have gotten organized,â” Bailey goes on, â“so the developer doesn't always win. Time is money, so they're willing to talk with communities. It's not to placate them; it's just to make some attempt to say, â‘Hey, I've listened.' It's got to fit into what they've already envisioned.â”

After several negotiations, Mulkey agreed to set aside 50 acres of the property as a green space, and a greenway easement is in the works. But there's a caveat:

â“With the Rose Property, he already had his site plan where half the property was left untouched,â” Bailey explains. â“He got the density he wanted out of it. He got to place the buildings where he wanted them.â”

In short, Dovetail got everything it wanted. And all the groups that had negotiated with Dovetailâ"The Log Haven Community & Friends of Cherokee Trail, The Knox Land & Water Conservancy, The Cherokee Bluffs Council of Co-owners and The South Knoxville Arts & Heritage Centerâ"felt as though their voices went unheard, and that any historical significance had been lost forever.

â“History and forest have a value that's more important than a developer's profit or the city tax base,â” says Charlie Richmond of the South Knox Arts & Heritage Center. â“We would like to see a moratorium on development in this area, and develop a steep-slope, mountaintop protection ordinance.â”

Throughout the negotiations, Arthur Seymour and Dovetail have always maintained that there is no real evidence of Civil War activity on the Rose Property. â“Any relics had either been picked up or were found,â” he says. â“But there was no evidence of Civil War activity on this property.â”

The great irony is that Arthur Seymour's uncle, Digby Gordon Seymour, wrote Divided Loyalties , a comprehensive history of the Civil War in Knoxville. The third addition of the book features a three-page spread on the Battle of Armstrong's Hill.

Scott Sharp is walking along the gravel path that leads into the 50 acres of the Rose Property that Mulkey has agreed to leave as a greenspace. For a little over a year now, he's been taking his metal detector into the woods, pulling out dozens of bullets, pieces of cutlery, uniform buttons and, most spectacularly, a 10-pound Confederate artillery shell.

â“That big pine tree right there, that's where I dug two Confederate sniper's bullets. So, they were taking hits right in there,â” Sharp recalls. â“Over there, that's where the Yankees had their picket.â” He's trespassing each time he steps foot on the Rose Property to search for Civil War relics, but Sharp says that he's never been hassled for bringing his metal detector onto private property.

â“Just let us preserve what we can,â” he says.

The thing about Armstrong's Hill is that nobody knows exactly where it was. Some will tell you that it was the hill that Dovetail removed during Phase One of the Woodlands development. Others, like Sharp, believe that Armstrong's Hill is a steep hill just east of the Woodlands. At any rate, the entire property is littered with bullets.

In November of 1863, the Richmond Examiner reported that the â“Gen. Bragg is at work slowly, but surely, recovering East Tennesseeâ. [T]en days from this date our army will hold Knoxville and all the line of railroad to Virginia. Then a heavy column can pass down from Knoxvilleâ[and] move toward Nashville.â”

The New York Times , on November 19, after receiving a dispatch from Parson Brownlow, the highly polemic editor of the Knoxville Whig , reported that â“[t]here is fighting all about Knoxville.â”

The stage was set for Nov. 25, 1863, and the men of the 103 Ohio Infantry Regiments heard a â“rebel yellâ” for the first time, as the 5th Texas Regiments, reinforced by the 10th Georgia, started pushing against their picket lines, driving the Union troops over Armstrong's Hill, over the crest and into a deep ravine between the hill and Fort Higley. An unknown private is said to have screamed â“Forward! Charge bayonets! Forward boys! Forward!â”

The counterattack took the seasoned Confederate troops back over Armstrong's Hill. The 103 took large casualties, with 135 either killed or wounded.

The next day, the New York Times , in a typeface much larger than anything else on the front page, proudly reported: â“Our Forces Still Holding Knoxville.â”

â“The withdrawal of the enemy from the south side of Knoxville, is significant of a decided repulse,â” the article continued. â“Gen. Burnside is holding Knoxville under instructions from Gen. Grant, and it is not to be supposed, therefore, that the forces of Gens. Thomas Hooker and Sherman are wasting their time during these momentous days. We are hourly in expectation of receiving intelligence of a most important character.â”

Last year, on the 143rd anniversary of the battle, Sharp and his wife, Jennifer, were standing next to what he believes was the actual Armstrong's Hill. An avid Civil War reenactor, Sharp was taking it all in, trying to picture the battle in his head. It happened to be a Saturday, and there was a football game in progress on the other side of the river. When the Vols scored, the fireworks echoed across the Rose Property. â“It was chilling,â” Sharp recalls. â“Felt like I was there.â”

Maybe, just for a second, he really was.

"I walked the Rose Property with Morton Rose,â” Bailey explains. â“That was my turning point, when I realized that we wouldn't have a willing landowner to do anything spectacular about conservation.

â“That was what he wanted. It was family land. All I could say was, â‘Well, it's your property.'â”

When Dovetail first bought the land, Bailey took Mulkey out to I.C. King Park, a tract of land that sits off of Alcoa Highway. It overlooks the river and may be ready for some kind of development, but Mulkey wanted to build within a three-mile radius of campus.

â“People come up here and say, â‘What happened?'â” Kirkpatrick says with just a hint of disgust. â“Then they look at us as residents and say, â‘How did you let this happen?'â”

When the bulldozers first began moving dirt across the Rose Property, Kirkpatrick recalls one member of MPC saying that â“They had raped the trees.â”

â“It is shocking, and it is messy under construction. It will look better,â” Bailey explains. â“You can never quite redo what was there. What was there was absolutely perfect and lovely. The problem is that it wasn't economically viable for [the landowners] to keep it that way.â”

Now, with Phase Two of the Woodlands development nearing completion, the residents at nearby Log Haven continue to post signs that read, â“Keep Log Haven green,â” a final effort to get their point across.

â“Mulkey would go on and on, saying that they were going to be good neighbors,â” Kirkpatrick says. â“Well, they've done their thing, and we don't like them.â”

â“Of course, we're huge property-rights people in this area,â” Bailey goes on. â“So, if they go by the rules and get proper permits, they can do what they like with it.â”

"It does set a scary precedent,â” Richmond says of what happened on the Rose Property. However, he maintains a sense of optimism in spite of it all: â“Just because they destroyed a historical treasure once doesn't mean they will succeed the second time.â”

His words carry a greater sense of exigency, because while construction was in full swing over at the Rose Property, the residents of Log Haven were unnerved when they heard that developer David White of Seesaw Construction, another firm from Georgia, had purchased the land that they had been living on for years.

Not only did this purchase threaten most of the residents on the Log Haven property (most are renters), it could mean the end of Fort Higley, a huge earthen fort that has remained virtually untouched since the Civil War. Unfortunately for preservationists, the same thing that made it an ideal location for a fort makes it irresistible to developers. The views are spectacular.

â“Forts were made of dirt in 1863,â” Kirkpatrick says. â“There's no building. There's no castle. There is an obvious architectural, physical thing. People don't appreciate that, and they don't think that's worth preserving.â”

White had expressed interest in developing the fort. Dot Kelly of the Civil War Roundtable was stunned, and began pushing for an H-1 historical overlay to try to save the fort.

â“For her it was all or nothing,â” Bailey remembers. â“I don't know if we will save Fort Higley. But the lesson learned is, don't wait until a developer is doing rezoning.â”

The fort continues to make Knox Heritage's â“Fragile 15,â” a list of the most endangered historical buildings in Knoxville. Last year, Fort Higley was ranked #7.

â“City Council did not vote down H-1 overlay. They did not vote for it either,â” Bailey explains. The developers had hoped that it would've been voted down, so that it would not come back to haunt them later. But, as of right now, the City Council could still decide to put an H-1 overlay on Fort Higley. But there hasn't been any word of development on Log Haven in over a year. Davis White could not be reached for an interview, but Kirkpatrick says that he hears rumors that Log Haven could go up for sale once again.

â“They want more than $3 million for this property now,â” he says. â“If you're gonna spend that many million dollars on this property, you're gonna completely fuck it up to get your money back.â”

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