Stourbridge Lion Test Run,1929, photo courtesy of Library of Congress

The Fourth of July and Knoxville go way back. We were celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence as early as July 4, 1793, with fireworks and rounds of toasts to the new Republic’s leaders and even Indian chiefs the settlers admired. The Fourth is, in fact, the very first holiday Knoxville celebrated publicly; Christmas was hardly mentioned in print in those days. 

But over the years the Fourth has been something more than a commemoration of the founding of the nation. 

In the early days of steam travel, Knoxville languished. We had riverboats in town now and then, but due to the length of the river—by water, it’s more than 1,000 miles to New Orleans—combined with a number of shoals and other stubborn hazards, made it obvious that Knoxville wouldn’t be a big city for business until railroads arrived. 

And that would be a challenge. To get a train to Knoxville, surrounded by mountains and rivers, would require bridges and tunnels and lots and lots of money. 

McKinney Guards at the Lamar House
McKinney Guards at the Lamar House on Gay Street, 1876, photo courtesy of McClung Historical Collection

Still, people were enthusiastic. We don’t think of the Fourth as a day to get a lot of work done. But in 1836, there weren’t fireworks stores, and nobody had invented hot dogs. So on the 60th anniversary of the United States, Knoxville hosted a big railroad convention. The idea was that Knoxville would be central to a railroad connecting Charleston to Cincinnati. Four hundred delegates from nine states came to town to discuss the exciting new plans. The visitors were the equivalent of about one fourth the population of the city. The Lamar House, now the front portion of the Bijou Theatre, but then known as Jackson’s Hotel, surely did good business that Monday. But Knoxville didn’t have 400 hotel rooms in 1836; perhaps every house in town turned into a bed and breakfast for the day. 

“From the beginning to the close of the convention, the very best spirit seemed to animate all hearts,” according to one cheerful assessment. "Party politics were neither spoken of nor alluded to.”

Spirits were so high it seemed obvious it would be only a short time before Knoxville was one of the South’s great railroad hubs. At the time, there were no cities known as Birmingham—or Atlanta. Knoxville, which had lost its state-capital status several years earlier, seemed poised to take its place as one of the most important cities of the Southern interior.  

In spite of the reported good feelings, there was anxiety and disgruntlement among some of the attendees, and among others who weren’t invited. Georgians were particularly unhappy with the results of the Knoxville Convention, and immediately set about to build, with state funding, their own railroad—which resulted in the creation of a new city, first known as Terminus, then as Atlanta.

First Engine and Train in America
First Engine and Train in America, 1931, photo courtesy of Library of Congress

As it happens, that made-up new city got railroads long before Knoxville did. Atlanta was a booming town when Knoxville was still struggling with geography and adequate finances and reliable leadership to finish its railroad. In fact, it was 19 years after that railroad convention before the first railroad—the East Tennessee and Georgia, a different idea from the one heralded in 1836--rolled into town. The big formal welcome for the first locomotive many here had ever seen was the biggest festival in Knoxville’s history up to that time. 

And the noisy contraption arrived from the west as it pulled into the new station at the northern foot of Summit Hill, scaring horses and some humans alike. 

And it all happened, whether by coincidence or promotional genius, on the Fourth of July. 

It changed Knoxville forever, rendering the quiet former capital a modern industrial city. In the first fifteen years after the railroad arrived—despite a major distraction called the Civil War--the city’s population quadrupled. (During which, unlike most of the South, Knoxville kept celebrating the U.S. holiday known as Independence Day.) And that figure quadrupled again by 1910. You could almost say that Knoxville, as we have come to know it, was born on July 4, 1855. 

Looking for modern Independence Day festivities?  Check this blog post here!