Quarry lakes, formed in the abandoned stone quarries that once earned Knoxville the nickname Marble City, are not technically “natural” bodies of water. Years ago men and machines ripped the massive holes in the earth and built the odd structures around them. When they abandoned them, the holes filled up with water and formed deep, sheer-sided lakes. The quarries are now home to fish, snakes and birds. Wild grape vines twist around the old concrete kilns. Mature trees grow through the middle of train tracks winding through the forest. These places exist through the massive violence of human machines, and the slow creep of nature reclaiming a man-made catastrophe. The result is strange and powerful. Midway Quarry in Mascot, still actively mined, is a raw scar in the earth, a shocking desecration of the land. But it will not always be this way.
Mead, Fort Dickerson, Mascot—these three quarry lakes are Knoxville’s best swimming holes. Mascot’s old quarry, deep in the woods, almost impossible to find, has the most trash on the shore and the most graffiti painted on the crumbling concrete shafts and towers. But the water is the clearest and the wildlife the most abundant. Swimming in this quarry makes people feel happy and wild. Older people reminisce about childhoods full of unstructured play in the woods, teenagers jump off cliffs, children develop a love for rocks and fish. They catch perch in a plastic Kroger bag, and then let them go.
Mead’s Quarry, managed by Ijams Nature Center and protected against swimmers and boaters, is the murkiest, the most full of scum and algae. Nature trails ring the lake and educational kiosks explain that the quarry was used as an illegal dump for years. Still, many Knoxvillians will admit to having once taken a midnight swim there with a group of tipsy friends. It is just the most accessible.
The Fort Dickerson Quarry, recently bought by Legacy Parks and donated to the city, seems to be in a transitional gray area. The “No Trespassing” sign at Blount Avenue is still up, but just beyond the sign a freshly-laid gravel path flanked by limestone cairns (guerrilla sculptures, maybe) leads down to the water. A new official-looking city park sign warns against swimming, and reminds visitors to keep their dogs on leashes. College kids jump from the cliffs anyway into the clear, deep water.
Ghost stories and urban myths of deadly snakes surround these weird, wild places, and also a certain lawlessness. A stolen wallet, a smashed car window—these are real risks of the quarries. Everyone who swims in one is technically a criminal, some more violent than others. Swimming in the quarry makes me a criminal too, risking fines and a stern talking-to by a uniformed officer. Yet all kinds of people are willing to take risks on hot summer days to submerge their bodies. The psychological need of humans for large bodies of water is mysterious and profound. I met so many women and boys, senior citizens and children swimming in the quarries, I wondered at times if this was even news, even worth writing about. All those people agree with me: The water is worth the risk.