More than half a century ago, one section of downtown Knoxville dependably caught the attention of newcomers for its pure oddity. Many Knoxvillians, accustomed to avoiding the area, preferred to pretend it wasn’t there.
The shore of the river, at the foot of the bluffs, was cheap property, unclaimed for other purposes, in large part because the wild river often flooded. Down there was some legitimate business, especially barge-oriented industry, but no one spent much money on construction there because next spring’s flood might ruin it. In between the wharves and the flotsam of an industrial river town were places where human beings lived in a gray zone between abject homelessness and mere poverty. Squatters, mostly, some lived in jury-rigged cliff dwellings, some on sand-bar islands, some in beached houseboats, many of them fashioned from the tin roof of a lost barn, an old billboard, or a portion of a wrecked barge.
While Knoxvillians busied themselves at the movies up on Gay Street, travelers like the elusive Swiss journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who visited in 1937, described it in a book as Knoxville’s “shadow side,” unelectrified neighborhoods in the shadow of bright downtown. Later, novelists David Madden and Cormac McCarthy described it in rank detail in the novels Bijou and Suttree; McCarthy even placed his title character in a houseboat down here.
In the latter days of the Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority was at work on a system of dams, including Fort Loudoun downstream from Knoxville, and set out to document the people who would be affected by the dam construction. In spring, 1941, TVA sent an assessor named Frederick E. Ketchen down here to document life along the river. His original typewritten report, which is still in TVA’s archives, describes the near-desperate conditions of people who lived by the river, and includes these rare photographs of a side of Knoxville never depicted in promotional shots.
Ketchen took photographs of river dwellers up and down the river, but the most striking ones are those in downtown Knoxville. They found five distinct riverfront communities, “separated because of topography or the clannish tendencies of the people.” The Water Works neighborhood, along Riverside Drive, east of downtown, was made up of “flimsy huts” which were home to about 21 people. “Seven of the 16 adults are too old and broken by disease to earn a decent living.”
In Shacktown, which “grew up as a result of the difficult years preceding the New Deal” the “strangely built substandard shacks...are a ludicrous composite of scrap, gleaned from various sources and worked into the stilted hovels perched on tall wooden legs.” About 34 lived there.
Vanntown was closer to the University of Tennessee, in the shadow of where Neyland Stadium already stood, a community of “beached houseboats in all stages of depreciation. This is the oldest and most colorful section of the entire river frontage, where rivermen have had their haunts since the founding of Knoxville.” Bootlegging was “the sole source of income for several families.” Fifty people, including 20 children, lived in Vanntown.
South Seventeenth, a little farther west, was home to 22, “typical shanties...crowded between a high bluff and a one-way dirt road that skirts the river.”
Roseville was on the south side of the river, near Sevier Avenue, on the property of the Rose Lumber Co., “shacks crowded almost bumper to bumper along the bank in a straight row for two blocks.” Most were originally employees to whom Rose “granted permission to construct houses...on the condition that they buy the material from the employer.” About 47 lived there. Three are described as “rivermen,” one supported a family of three as a “rag picker.”
The TVA report concluded that the downtown Knoxville river slums were the worst in the region. “Many are unemployables, uneducated and without resources.” The observer assumed that some would be forced into “the already overcrowded slum districts.” Though TVA’s regulation of the river was expected to have a positive influence on developing industry and employment, the assessor admits, “It can hardly be expected that any real benefit will be derived by these families because of their relocation.”
Several of the shacks survived Ft. Loudoun reservoir, and many residents stayed for years afterward.
A selection from the archive
Photo by courtesy of TVA
“Shacktown” was the river community closest to downtown Knoxville. The houseboat above, with the Henley Street Bridge in the background, was visible for years. The restaurant Calhoun’s is in this approximate location today. Volunteer Landing, as we know it today, spans the sites of four different squatters’ communities.
Photo by courtesy of TVA
“Roseville” was located on the south side of the river, a quarter mile east of the Gay Street Bridge, between Sevier Avenue and the river. The houses, built in an agreement with the Rose Lumber Co., which supplied the land, appear to be more durable than most riverside shacks; by the agreement, families were obligated to build their homes with lumber purchased from Rose.
A Roseville house on the south bank. Before Fort Loudoun dam, the river’s level fluctuated much more than it does today; the water was often lower than it is today, but at some flood stages, it was higher.
The effects of Fort Loudoun Lake were much more significant downstream from Knoxville to the west, along the Rocky Hill and Keller’s Bend areas, where some homes were entirely flooded. Homes near the river in rural areas, many of them owner-occupied, were sometimes primitive, but better constructed and more typical of rural East Tennessee than the squatters’ shacks of the downtown area. TVA took some pains to compensate and relocate residents for the creation of Fort Loudoun Lake, presented as an improvement to the region as a whole—but resentments over lost homes remained for generations. The precise locations of these houses are unidentified in the text, but the “part-log house in a canyon” is apparently in the Blue Grass community of Southwest Knox County.
A veritable cliff dwelling near downtown Knoxville. The location is unidentified, but in context it appears to be on the north bank of the river, and may be perched on the steep ridge to the east of First Creek. The grim captions offer only a clue about the people who lived in the riverfront communities, but this cabin on stilts appears better prepared for spring flooding than most.