20,000 Leagues Under Tennessee

Getting to the bottom of Knoxville's deep, dark quarries

The dumbest thing I've ever done to impress a boy was jump off a cliff. I was 19, and that summer I would've followed Colin Wolf, a dreamy college boy with cornflower blue eyes, anywhere. On this day in particular, that meant traipsing after him over a gate marked "No Trespassing" into an abandoned South Knoxville marble quarry.

I'd have been as impressed if he'd shown me the Cliffs of Dover. Craggy bluffs plunged into a lake of jade-green water as serene as a sheet of glass. What was down there, I wondered. Dumped-off automobiles, probably; dead bodies, for sure. Most importantly, Lambert's Quarry now contained Colin, who looked so cute waving up at me to jump in after him. So I did what any girl with a fear of heights and an even bigger fear of rejection would do: I closed my eyes and leapt into the void.

The initial free-fall happened too fast to imprint itself on the memory. When I broke the water's surface, though, time slammed on the brakes. I kept plummeting deeper, like I was being sucked into some watery wormhole, a liquid tornado funneling me into the deep-end of reality. As the momentum pushed me further down, the light from above grew more distant. Cloaked in translucent darkness, I imagined the quarry bottom fast approaching. I could already feel the thick, slippery tentacles of algae wrapped around my ankles, pinning me to my submarine deathbed. I could hear my muted scream as I found myself face-to-face with a bloated corpse dressed in 1930s mining garb.

My premonitions of drowning were short-lived. Suddenly I had more important things to think about, like my bikini top, which had come undone. I was still fumbling with it when my body switched into buoy-mode, reversing its downward trajectory. Lungs on fire and fingers scrambling to salvage my dignity in five seconds or less, I kicked toward the light.

ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

As it turns out, the quarry's "No Trespassing" sign isn't just stick-in-the-mud decoration. Later that summer, Colin's younger brother broke his collarbone jumping off an 80-foot cliff—and, statistically speaking, he got lucky. Lambert's Quarry, a former Vulcan Materials site, has seen multiple drownings, including a Knoxville Volunteer Rescue Squad diver who died while attempting to recover a body in 1995. Police keep an eye on the lake, which is owned by the city as part of Fort Dickinson Park, and issue tickets to trespassers, but without round-the-clock security the quarry continues to see its share of thrill-seeking visitors (and, ahem, their unsuspecting girlfriends).

The Metropolitan Planning Commission doesn't have an exact count of how many quarries are within Knox County but has identified at least a dozen. With a few exceptions, most are no longer in operation or have moved further afield. The heyday of Tennessee Marble, actually a highly-polished industrial-grade limestone, peaked a century ago, when it was used in structures ranging from our downtown U.S. Post Office to the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Knoxville, being near the center of a vast marble basin, was producing the stuff in such great quantities that it became known as the Marble City.

But for a place that could justifiably open its own marble-quarrying museum, there are few windows through which we can view the Marble City's past. Mead's Quarry, which opened in 1881 as Island Home Quarry and was producing upwards of 25,000 cubic feet of marble annually by the turn of the century, probably offers the best vantage point.

Like Lambert's Quarry, Mead's is located within a five-minute radius of the Sunsphere. It's not always existed as the public-friendly landmark it is today, though. Prior to a four-year facelift that culminated in a grand opening in 2005, the 52-acre property sat vacant for more than 20 years. The last company that operated there, Williams Limestone Company, closed up shop in 1975, at which time the area became a magnet for vandalism, crime and discarded items ranging from mattresses to stolen cars. In 1997, a 24-year-old killed his 15-year-old girlfriend there and dumped her body in the lake.

Did someone say "illegal?" Enter, once again, my cliff-jumping ex-boyfriend and his faithful follower, yours truly. I never swam in Mead's Quarry—OK, maybe once, and it gave me a weird rash—but we did tour the grounds on occasion. This was the year 2000, pre-renovation, and Mead's wasn't a pretty sight. The quarry's abandoned kilns, once used to extract limestone into lime, now resembled the setting of a William S. Burroughs novel: part homeless camp, part used-needle recycling center. Not exactly the most romantic place to take your girlfriend on a picnic.

Despite the neglect that plagued its periphery, though, the lake itself, a horseshoe of pink marble cliffs rimming an ice-blue lake, remained a spectacular sight. At the time, Mead's was a poster child for the paradox of local quarries, one that continues today. Here are these breathtakingly beautiful landmarks, folded into the cityscape where we'd least expect them, but to enjoy them is forbidden—not to mention dangerous.

NOT-SO-HIDDEN TREASURES

Thanks to the support of Ijams and the county and the clean-up work of countless volunteers, Mead's can no longer count itself among Knoxville's dilapidated jewels. Although swimming, diving, and boating are still prohibited there—"Being a former industrial site, you don't know what you're going to get involved with, getting in that water," warns Paul James, executive director of Ijams Nature Center—hiking trails and a vivacious wildlife scene now offer landlubbers plenty of high-and-dry entertainment. Recent additions include floating wildlife platforms on the water, especially popular among Canadian Geese, and the rejuvenation of Stanton Cemetery, with graves dating back to 1870.

More local marble quarries may be rolling away their stones in the future. Last year, Ijams annexed a 103-acre tract of land containing the Georgia Marble Quarry adjacent to Mead's. Unlike Mead's, the Georgia Quarry is dry, earmarked instead by a number of caves. (Colin, if you're out there somewhere reading this, don't even think about it: They've been gated off to the public until renovation is complete.)

The future of Lambert's Quarry may also be wrapped in fewer layers of caution tape. The South Knoxville Waterfront Vision Plan, penned in 2006, envisions developing it into a "Quarry Outdoor Center" with kayaking, rock climbing, a recirculating whitewater course, and the possibility of a scenic lodge or conference center. It's an exciting proposition, especially considering the quarry's location in the shadow of downtown. Former Mayor Victor Ashe's 1994 prediction that Lambert's Quarry become "Knoxville's largest swimming pool" at the unveiling of the Harold Lambert Overlook may have been ill-timed, arriving on the heels of a drowning three months earlier, but it may yet come to fruition.

It'd be a more fitting homage to the Marble City than a "No Trespassing" sign.

INFO:

Mead's Quarry at Ijams Nature Center

When: Ijams is open to the public daily from 8 a.m. until dusk

Where: Ijams is located at 2915 Island Home Ave., approximately two miles from downtown Knoxville. From downtown via Henley Street, take the Henley Street Bridge south to Baptist Hospital. Turn left onto Blount Avenue. Bear right onto Sevier Avenue. After passing through two traffic lights, turn left onto Island Home Avenue. Follow Island Home Avenue, which turns right by the entrance to Island Home Park. Follow green directional signs to Ijams. The Mead's Quarry parking lot is past the visitor's center to the right.

How Much: Free

Word to the Wise: Why not make a day of it? From hiking trails to biking trails, historical fact-gathering to bird-watching, Ijams has something to offer everyone's inner naturalist. On your way into the park, stop by the Visitor's Center to pick up a map, explore the museum's current exhibitions, and custom-design your adventure.

For More Info: Call 865-577-4717 or visit ijams.org.