Crossing the Tracks: An Effort to Reconnect Old Kingston Pike with Itself May Be Just Too Sensible

For the last 50 or 60 years, which is as long as I can remember, Old Kingston Pike has just been the quiet little street behind Long’s, with Ashe’s package store, old masonry Firehouse No. 12, and Citadel Broadcasting’s studios. A long time ago it was one of the more interesting parts of my bicycle paper route, maybe a quarter of it commercial, the rest of it modest little houses occupied by quiet people, many of them older folks who didn’t seem eager for attention. Some customers paid their monthly bills in nickels and pennies.

It has changed a great deal in the last several years. Today that bit of Old Kingston Pike hosts modern, upscale, suburban-style office buildings, with parking lots where there used to be front yards. The professionals with addresses on Old Kingston Pike are lawyers and financial planners. I was surprised, on a recent visit down there, to find only one actual house left.

Old Kingston Pike appears to end at Staub Street, where I once took piano lessons. Then the old road dissolves into what looks like a driveway along the northeastern corner of Cherokee Country Club’s golf course, but on Google Maps, it’s charted like a city street.

Then it dead ends. But just beyond, on a straight line I haven’t dared to travel, because it involves some trespassing and I’m getting too respectable for that sort of thing, is Homberg Drive, where it curves up toward modern-day Kingston Pike.

Today, inquiring people with good spatial instincts guess, correctly, that they were once the same street. On a map, the two form a straighter line than does the other Kingston Pike, that five-lane pretender a couple blocks to the north.

A few Bearden entrepreneurs, like filmmaker Phil Hardison, whose studio is in Homberg Place, are suggesting the prospect of opening Old Kingston Pike back up, if only as a greenway. Several entrepreneurs, a few city administrators, and at least one city councilman are interested in the idea. Homberg Place has always seemed like a lovely ideal that never quite worked out as developers hoped, and maybe a greenway connecting it to the 5,000 residents in the Sequoyah Hills area would be just what it needs.

Between the western end of Old Kingston Pike and the eastern curve of Homberg Drive are a about a hundred yards of private land, between the golf course and a strip mall known as Homberg Court. But the biggest problem on that patch are the twin rails lying across it. Today it’s part of the Norfolk-Southern system, but this one goes all the way back, part of the region’s first railroad. Even before Norfolk-Southern’s predecessor, Southern Railway, was formed, this railroad was already here. When it was completed in 1855, it was called the East Tennessee and Georgia.

That railroad’s probably the main motive in the weird evolution of that section of Kingston Pike that first forced there to be an Old Kingston Pike to begin with—and then, years later, cut it into two squirming halves.

Kingston Pike is one of Knox County’s older roads. Through the 19th century and into the 20th, it came right down what’s now Old Kingston Pike. On a sharply detailed 1895 county map, Kingston Pike is an almost-straight line, as are the almost-parallel train tracks. The pike crosses the train tracks at an acute angle, right in that trouble spot, that no-man’s land. Kingston Pike’s original course, merging with the railroad, looks like a pair of scissors almost closed.

In the earliest days, railroad crossings were not that big a deal. With a little care, horses could usually pull wagons over a track. If something happened, and somebody got hit by a train, it was chalked up to bad luck or God’s will, and didn’t suggest a lawsuit. But new, faster automobiles were different. They could cross train tracks perpendicularly. But at an angle, they might catch a wheel and strip a tire or, worse, break an axle. Bicyclists learn about that phenomenon the hard way. An acute crossing is a dangerous problem.

By the 1920s, Kingston Pike was becoming something it had never been before, a national automobile route, and national routes have some standards about railroad crossings. A bridge would cross that railroad, more than a quarter mile to the east, where it was in the bottom of a ravine, obviating the old at-grade crossing, and also changing the course of the pike. Hence, to this day, Kingston Pike bows to the north.

“Old Kingston Pike” first shows up by that name around 1927: three-quarters of a mile of road with just a few residential addresses, black and white families alike. Naples, then called the Wayside Inn, anchored the western intersection of Kingston Pike and Old Kingston Pike.

Around 1950, though, it was closed to traffic, right in the middle, where the railroad tracks were. I haven’t found a description of why, but it seems most likely that Southern Railway had their way with it. Railroads don’t like at-grade crossings, try to eliminate them when they can, and rarely allow new ones. At the time, it was a very busy railroad, not only with freight, but with daily passenger-train traffic as well.

There’s an irony about local success. This rail’s original purpose was local. The East Tennessee and Georgia, later the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia, was headquartered in Knoxville. For the first 40 years this rail was here, if you wanted to talk to somebody who controlled it, you’d knock on a door just off Gay Street. And the man behind the door would probably be interested in what you had to propose.

Today, Norfolk Southern’s a big publicly traded corporation, a 22-state system based in Norfolk, Va. There are people in control of these tracks who’ve probably never seen them. Would they be persuaded by how charming Homberg could be if it had a bike or walking route to Sequoyah Hills?

For us, now, it’s at least an interesting idea.

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