The Mystery of the Concrete Tower

The long-deferred story behind a puzzling riverbank ruin

Photo with no caption

Secret History

by Jack Neely

During the warm months every year, when nautical Vols and summer sailors get out on the river in boats in the downtown area, somebody brings it up. On the north shore, maybe half a mile east of downtown, is a building unlike any other in town. It's a peculiar structure, a cast-stone tower of variable height, depending on the water level: two, sometimes four stories tall, built in the shape of an elongated hexagon. The side that faces the river squarely has alternating eyelid-shaped apertures, like gun holes. On its top is a small turret-like structure. People want to believe it's a fortress of some sort. Maybe a pillbox to defend Knoxville from a naval invasion by the Union Army. Or, in the alternative, a naval invasion by the Confederate Army. Some Knoxvillians were concerned about each threat.

One modern observer saw it from a boat and wondered if it could have been something left by the Indians. From a distance, it does look vaguely Mayan.

Lately, other people are noticing it from its other side. The Three Rivers Rambler steams by the structure on summer weekends, and the relatively recent extension of the Volunteer Landing greenway goes right by it.

The Volunteer Landing Marina, built a few years ago, has partly obscured the tower from the eyes of boaters, but now it also offers the best way to get a good look at its more distinctive riverfront side. It's an interesting walk, if you've never tried it. When I was down there, nearly 100 boats of all seaworthy shapes and sizes were moored. Luxury boats, fishing boats, spite boats, party boats, boats that look like they haven't been anywhere recently. I've never much wanted to own a boat, but I like to look at them. Assembled all along a dock like this, they're like characters in a play.

The tower's toward the end. I first noticed it, from the other side of the river, maybe 30 years ago. I'd never seen it this close before. Its face is blank.

Some things you figure you'll never learn much about. A masonry tower in the woods is not always easy to look up. It doesn't have an obvious name, and it's not clear, by looking at it, that it ever had an address. It's not on a street. Except for the dock, there are no other buildings anywhere near it. It's just there, alone in a dense strip of woods along the riverbank.

But sometimes you just blunder across a clue.

A few weeks ago, looking for a picture of the elaborate old Vendome apartment building at the McClung Collection, I found a promotional book called Progressive Knoxville , dated 1904. A generation or two later, that title would have seemed an obvious joke, but in 1904, they took the idea earnestly.

On page 23 is a photograph of the tower. It looks different, with no woods around it, but other buildings and houses nearby.

It's labeled as â“Intake Tower at Knoxville Water Company's Main Pumping Station.â” The caption adds, â“Using the latest invention of William Wheeler, Boston.â”

I'd never heard of Mr. Wheeler, but looked him up. I found he was a connoisseur of conduits. He's remembered today as pioneering a â“light pipeâ” technology sometimes cited as a precursor of fiber optics.

I also found out that the inventor's company, Wheeler & Parks, bought the whole Knoxville Water Co. in the early 1890s, and established, for the first time, a consistently effective filtration system, furnishing to the whole city water that was â“clear and sparkling.â” Not necessarily sanitaryâ"chlorination would come laterâ"but definitely clear and sparkling. In those days, it was expedient to locate the pumping station here, close to town but just upstream of the sewers and industrial drainpipes of the city.

It was apparently around that time of massive improvements to the water-supply system that Wheeler and Parks built this intake tower below what was known as Reservoir Hill. Built in the late 1890s of concrete and iron, it reportedly pumped 15 million gallons per day.

It's silent now. I'm not sure when they turned it off. The water plant and intake that are still in use, the unaccountable handsome Mark B. Whitaker plant about a mile upstream at Williams Creek, was built in 1926. By then, this remnant of Victorian progress was known as â“the old intake tower.â”

  Of course, today we just see the upper half of the utilitarian wonder that Progressive Knoxville advertised. Before the dams, the river used to fluctuate much more than it does today. In that 1904 photo, which may have been taken at a low stage of the river's level to show the tower's full height, it's about twice as tall as it appears today. But if the building's upper apertures were ever at water level, as you'd assume, it would seem an indication that the river, while sometimes shallower, was also sometimes deeper than it ever gets now.

This section is now jungle-lush and green with thick kudzu and honeysuckle, with no streets in sight. The railroad's old, but the marina and bike trail are relatively new. You could easily assume this wilderness had never been developed at all until recently.

But comparing maps and city directories, I found out this old Mayan ruin of a utility appliance did once have an address. This quiet spot was once the corner of Cardwell and East Front Streets. When they built the intake tower here, the neighborhood was a residential area of moderate density, with some industry. The Knoxville Sash, Door, and Blind Factory was next door.

Cities don't always grow; sometimes they recede, leaving few, and sometimes odd, traces. By the way, the intake tower is, by most criteria, a historic building. Don't be terribly surprised to find it advertised, in a year or two, as a riverfront condo with unique charm and unusual windows.

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