Legacy Parks Campaigns to Save Knoxville's Most Gorgeous Battlefield

Four years ago, the forested southside tract known as the "Rose property" seemed a lost cause. After months of protest, much of the property visible from Cherokee Trail was clear-cut for some major condominium projects aimed at college students. Dovetail, an Athens, Ga.-based developer specializing in up-market student housing, was going to develop most of the 90-odd acres in a three-phase project. Phase I and II were completed apace; now occupied, they're known as The Woodlands, perhaps an illustration of Garrison Keillor's axiom that condo developments are named for what was removed to build them. The popular student housing complex offers an unusual array of amenities, including a movie theater and tanning booths. A controversial water tower set up to support the development seemed to punctuate the developers' victory.

But there's a surprising epilogue to the story. Last year, likely influenced by the national housing-market collapse, Dovetail unexpectedly withdrew from Phase III of the grand plan—by far the most land-intensive, it was to be a more upscale development aimed more at adults, and included five-story blufftop condos—and put the property up for sale. Legacy Parks Foundation got an option on it early this year. A charitable non-profit, Legacy Parks works to obtain property for preservation as natural parkland, eventually to be available to the public in cooperation with the city and county parks systems. The foundation wields a large and prominent board, which includes everybody from former County Executive Tommy Schumpert (the board's chair), City Council member Marilyn Roddy, former city architect David Collins, state Sen. Jamie Woodson, greenways advocate Will Skelton, and railroad baron and philanthropist Pete Claussen, to name just a few.

Legacy has negotiated to buy the 70-acre tract for $1.6 million, and raised more than half of that amount. Its window on the option is closing soon—on Dec. 31—but Executive Director Carol Evans is hopeful Legacy can raise the remaining $600,000 before then.

If Legacy is successful, most of the old Rose property will be saved after all, open to the public and preserved as a natural forest area.

The Rose Property is interesting to conservationists as a rare "urban forest" never developed except as a natural refuge for the family that enjoyed it; the affluent Rose family did some elaborate gardening on the property, and constructed the two good-sized ponds here. Now it's mostly returned to wilderness. Major acreage of undeveloped forest this close to an urban center is unusual; in the thick of it, the hilly forest seems almost like the Smokies, but as the crow flies, it's hardly a mile from the Henley Street Bridge. That fact is more relevant than it may seem, because the bluff here, high above the river, offers a unique view of downtown and the University of Tennessee that can astonish: It's perhaps the best view of Knoxville from the south side. On the property are a couple of large man-made earthen ponds and, facing the river, a natural cave tagged by generations of vandals back to the Union occupation.

The tract also fascinates Civil War historians, who have long suspected it to have been the location of the fierce and costly (but historically murky) Battle of Armstrong's Hill during the Confederate siege of the city in November, 1863. That fall, Union troops had built a near-impregnable ringlet of forts around the small city. Several earthworks were here on the south side of the river, but the fortifications ended roughly opposite UT's Hill, at the westernmost Unionist position, Fort Higley, leaving Confederates the opportunity to set up on Cherokee Bluffs, just east of what's now UT Hospital—almost, but not quite, in effective artillery range of Union positions in Knoxville. In between was a no-man's land called Armstrong's Hill, named for the wealthy Armstrong family who lived on Kingston Pike but owned considerable acreage on the south side.

Gaining that hill would threaten the Union's western flank on the south side, and also offer better artillery vantage for the cannons aimed at Union positions on the north side, including Fort Sanders. On Nov. 25, Confederate troops made a lunge at Armstrong's Hill, overwhelming the few Union pickets there. But a Union counterattack pushed them back over. In the big scheme of things, it was a skirmish, but for the Union army, the 135 casualties were worse than at the Battle of Fort Sanders.

The battle was confusing even at the time, and its known geography, some of it based on detailed battle maps, some on simplistic sketches by soldiers drawing from memory, is obscure, but a phalanx of Civil War authorities now seems convinced that Armstrong's Hill is contained in this 70 acres where Dovetail chose not to complete Phase III of its condo project. Legacy consults with the Civil War Alliance, a consortium of existing enthusiasts, including the Civil War Roundtable and scholars at UT's McClung Museum, who study and discuss the late unpleasantness.

If all goes according to the grand plan announced not quite a year ago, a mega-greenway perhaps like no other in America will link this not-quite-forgotten battlefield with the three existing, or at least discernible, Union forts on the south side: Higley, Dickerson, and Stanley. Dickerson, the largest and best preserved, has been public for half a century. Higley, unmarked and unconnected by any trail, is part of the adjacent Log Haven property, purchased in 2007 by the Aslan Foundation, a group cooperating with Legacy Parks. Legacy Parks has an option on Fort Stanley, on a peak just east of Chapman Highway. A site rarely seen even by Civil War buffs, and well-protected by poison ivy, it's owned by a sympathetic seller who's accepted Legacy's bid for it, if they can raise $800,000 by Feb. 15.

"The catalyst was Aslan buying Log Haven," says Evans. The charitable foundation purchased the unique log-cabin subdivision; arguably retro even when it was built in the early 20th century, Log Haven is now a genuinely historical neighborhood of 95 acres, adjacent to the Rose Property and also to the earthen ruins of old Fort Higley.

When the "Phase III" property unexpectedly came up for sale, about a year ago, Legacy Parks jumped on it and began negotiations with Dovetail. "A lot of what we do is opportunistic," Evans says. "We try to get to the property that's available when it becomes available." Evans, who had just heard about new integrated land-use trends at a Pittsburgh convention of the National Land Trust concerning the "collected assets" of some property which may have, for example, both historical and recreational value. It seemed to her that such was the case with the Rose property.

The idea of connecting all these natural and semi-natural attractions excites Evans. "It's a really fun idea," she says. "People might go there to see a Civil War fort, but then take a long walk in the woods—do something else they didn't intend to do. And it's right across the river from downtown."

Dovetail will make a significant profit off the sale, as well as get a significant tax credit for selling it as a conservation easement.

If Legacy succeeds in raising the money to complete the sale, it will amount to an interesting inversion of some typical assumptions about development. It's common for property owners to be skeptical of historical or natural claims about land they're trying to sell—assuming that selling it to an aggressive developer who desires to change the landscape, as free of restrictions as possible, will be the most profitable course. Prior to the sale to Dovetail, some members of the Rose family had seemed to minimize their property's historical value. In this case, if the owners had waited for preservationist interest to build, as it has in the last three or four years, they would have gotten a much better deal from a non-profit motivated purely to preserve the property because of its natural and historical assets.

Even if they raise the remaining money this week, Legacy won't rest for long. Fort Stanley is the next challenge. Linking them all together, from this bluff to Ijams Nature Center, to become a nationally unique historical greenway of four miles, three forts, and one obscure battlefield, will be a longer-term project.