For summer vacation, Knoxvillians often go to the beach, if they don’t prefer to go even farther away. But there was a time when many Americans came to Knoxville to spend the summer. Before the Smokies opened in 1930, our region’s biggest draw was our springs resorts, advertising either relaxation or natural waters with medicinal properties. The most popular of them, more than a century ago, was the one at Fountain City. The green area on the north side of town was once considered a mecca of cleanliness, beauty, and quietude. People began gathering there even before the Civil War for inspirational camp meetings, by the brook that flowed from the “fountainhead”—the place where water flowed out of a crack in the rocky side of Black Oak Ridge. People came here when they wanted to feel close to God.
Today, Fountain City is a modern place, a residential suburb where most people live in houses with yards and driveways, near a long, busy commercial strip with the famous chain restaurants and lots and lots of traffic. However, with some patience you can find some traces of what drew people to Fountain City back in the era before chain stores and automobiles, and some of them haven’t changed much.
The Knoxville History Project has recently released a driving tour of Fountain City. The northernmost part of Knoxville, it was not considered part of the city until its annexation in 1962, but even before that, it was in many ways inherent to the culture of the city.
The focus of attention in the 1880s and ’90s was the area that seems like a tiny downtown. Clearly visible alongside Broadway is the Duck Pond, formally known since 1894 as Fountain City Lake. The two-acre heart-shaped artificial pond was originally created as an amenity for the Fountain Head Hotel, a large and luxurious Victorian resort that stood to its west. The hotel was lost to fire more than a century ago, but the lake that once advertised it is Fountain City’s symbol, as beloved by residents as it is by the ducks who live there. Stocked with trout by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, it draws fishermen who prefer not to drive all the way to the Smokies, and also been known to produce surprisingly large catfish. On a good day, it’s a nice place for a short walk.
Just across Broadway is Litton’s; considering it’s now about 45 years old, it’s safe to call it a Fountain City landmark. They have a full menu, but the hamburgers—including the “Thunder Road”, named for the classic Robert Mitchum movie and song about bootlegging in these parts—are what are emphasized when Litton’s gets national media attention.
A narrow-gauge steam line known as the Dummy Line left hourly from downtown Knoxville; it evolved into an electric streetcar before it stopped running in the late 1940s. Near the site of the old Fountain City station, only a little remains of the old downtown along Hotel Road, named for the old Victorian hotel. A few early 20th-century urban buildings can give you an idea of what it looked like. One building bears the name of J.D. Jameson, and the date, 1923. Despite his perhaps chosen last name, Jameson was an Eastern European refugee, and claimed to be the only Bulgarian in East Tennessee. He ran a confectionary here, with ice cream, but also sold optical equipment and was one of Fountain City’s first radio dealers.
Just across Hotel Road is what began it all: Fountain City Park. It probably wasn’t called that when it attracted camp-meeting revivals in mid-19th century, but it was a Knoxville institution by the 1890s, when people would escape the noise and smoke and sin of the city by boarding a streetcar north. Pristine Fountain City had no factories and no saloons, just nature’s own beauty, highlighted by the placid, clean little brook that flowed from the side of the steep ridge. The park was popular every weekend afternoon in the summer, but for big events, like the Fourth of July or Labor Day, it was often the most popular spot in the county. On these special occasions, Fountain City Park hosted picnics, footraces, baseball games, brass-band concerts, dancing, and political speeches (even socialist Eugene V. Debs drew a crowd here in 1905). Knoxvillians from all over the city often spent the whole afternoon and evening here, catching the midnight streetcars back to town. Open to the public but privately owned for much of its history, it was well-maintained by the local Lions Club for many years, and it has recently been incorporated into the Knoxville City Park system. That gentle creek, by the way, is considered the principal tributary of First Creek, which flows south into the Tennessee River, and has played a major part in Knoxville history.
And one of Fountain City’s unique attractions, on Garden Drive, is Savage Gardens. Only rarely open to the public, but startling to those who drive by, it’s the grounds of a Montessori school; English-born industrialist Arthur Savage (1872-1946) built the eye-catching garden just over a century ago, with stone structures designed with a western interpretation of an Japanese theme, as was fashionable in the early 20th century. Damaged by a tornado in 1937 and later overgrown, it’s been lovingly renovated in recent years.
There’s lots more, of course, like historic houses. One large ca. 1920 house at the northeast corner of Broadway and Gibbs--currently on the market, in fact--was once the home of the man who invented the Dumpster (a word he introduced to the world in 1936), while just down Gibbs Drive is the well-kept home of one of the co-founders, and first historian, of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Not far away are several interesting cemeteries, the largest of which is Greenwood, on Tazewell Pike, which includes the resting place of E.T. Sanford, a U.S. Supreme Court justice as well as that of Joseph Delaney, an African American painter best known for his street views of New York. (The same cemetery was the setting for a memorable scene in James Agee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family.)
You can read more about it with KHP’s free driving tour.