Know Your Tennessee River

Starting a four-part series about water: river, creek, quarry, spring

Photo with no caption

In Knoxville we are surrounded by water. On a map the entire city is crisscrossed and spotted with blue, but to someone hoping to swim or wade, these blue marks are misleading. I’ve spent the summer exploring Knoxville’s rivers, creeks, quarries, and springs, and the real water is mostly buried, polluted, or privately owned. “Avoid Body Contact” read the signs on the banks of the creeks, and “No Swimming” signs at the old quarries. It seems there are few places for a law-abiding person to swim in natural water on a hot summer day.

One of the great sorrows of Knoxville is its polluted water. Our policy-makers have not cherished our waterways. We have used them like toilets and trash disposals then paved over the unsightly mess. We are ashamed of it. The proof is in Second Creek, forced underground into a concrete culvert under World’s Fair Park while on the surface an artificial creek has been constructed, powered by electric pumps (“No Wading”).

Real, tangible access to natural water is important in our daily lives. It is good medicine to sit by a rushing creek, swim in deep water, feel a connection with the source of our drinking water. Despite the pollution, despite the “No Trespassing” signs, I met many people of different ages and backgrounds seeking out Knoxville’s creeks, quarries, and springs looking to answer these yearnings. But only the Tennessee River can answer all of them.

At Volunteer Landing on the Tennessee River, a concrete splash-pad with artificial fountains tries to stand in for traditional human activities that used to take place at the water’s edge. “No climbing on rocks, don’t get in pools, absolutely no fishing!” read the signs. The concrete walkways lift people far out of reach of the real river, and railings discourage contact with the natural water. However well-intentioned, the water park, used legally, is an inadequate stand-in, not psychologically fulfilling or very fun, as evidenced by the acts of civil disobedience I witnessed everywhere—children climbing on the rocks, swimming in the decorative pools, and fishing from the docks.

Swimming in natural bodies of water makes you love them, and care about protecting them. If you really want to get to know our river, leave Volunteer Landing, go upstream from where First Creek empties into it, cross the South Knoxville Bridge and go down by Kat’s By the River (1315 Island Home Ave.). At the water’s edge, castles of kudzu tower above an old dock, slowly crumbling into the river. The water there is clearer and green. Take a shallow dive into the cold water and swim out to the middle. When you look down, the water is clear enough to see your feet, and even past your feet until the green deepens to black. On the far side of the river you may see the red blinking light of a cell phone tower. Close to the tower, a pair of ospreys have reportedly made a nest. Maybe you can spot the shape of a large bird diving for the trees. The current tugs you downstream. With all that powerful water surrounding you, supporting your body and the bodies of all the other creatures in the river, how can you not fall in love with it, and want it to live?

© 2011 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

TomB writes:

Agreed that the creeks in the area are diamonds in the rough.

It would be nice to see Second Creek daylighted where it flows under World's Fair Park. Other cities and towns are daylighting their creeks and streams, rescuing them from becoming little more than storm water sewers.

Second Creek was buried in concrete tunnels from Asylum Avenue south to the old Atlantic Ice plant at the viaduct and Main some 80 years prior to the World's Fair when the L&N built a railroad yard over it. When Main and Cumberland were consolidated during World's Fair construction under the Southern Railroad (now NS) viaduct that portion of Second Creek that briefly appeared again by Atlantic Ice was buried as well, re-emerging south of Cumberland.

First Creek too should be daylighted and landscaped in the downtown area. I notice that where it escapes its concrete tomb near the Knoxville & Holston railroad trestle, next to Ruth's Chris restaurant, there's a small waterfall effect due to the difference in elevation between the concrete section and the "natural" mouth at the Tennessee River. This elevation is enough to prevent fish from migrating back and forth from the river and up the creek as they do now with Third Creek.

The small tributary of Third Creek that parallels West High School on one side and the trail on the other side has some interesting fish in the pools between the exposed shale.

On a positive note, at least the World's Fair resulted in Second Creek being cleaned up and partly landscaped between Cumberland and the river. And the Third Creek trails are nice.

Does any other city name their creeks in this type of sequential order, from First through Fourth Creeks?

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.