Knoxville's been celebrating the Fourth of July longer than any other holiday, since at least 1793, when the local militia put on quite a fireworks show. By the 1850s, a Fourth of July Parade was a regular thing, downtown starting at Market Square. After the Civil War, resentment of the United States was still high in much of the South, where Fourth celebrations were often frowned upon, but Knoxville never missed a beat, celebrating the Fourth in a big way all along.
In fact, in Knoxville it's been a significant day for reasons other than the Declaration of Independence.
July 4, 1836--180 years ago-- was an especially dramatic Fourth, and not necessarily in terms of fireworks. That was the day of the Knoxville Convention. At the time, there were no railroads in Tennessee, but railroad executives and investors from around the country met in Knoxville to plan a proposed grand Cincinnati to Charleston route, via Knoxville. For this city, stagnating in population and already half-forgotten after losing its state-capital status about 18 years before, it was a major event that promised growth and prosperity.
But in months and years to come, there were geographical, economic and legal challenges, and piece by piece, the grand scheme of 1836 came apart. Meanwhile, a new, previously unknown city in Georgia grew from nothing, built on railroads, becoming something like what some had hoped Knoxville could be, back in 1836. This piddling upstart was called Atlanta. By the 1850s, thanks to the railroad, it was even bigger than Knoxville.
When Knoxville finally got its first railroad route--in 1855, 19 years after that convention--it was only a route to Dalton, Georgia.
Nonetheless, it offered connections to the outside world, and was a very big deal. After a shakedown run in June of 1855, the arrival of the Dalton train was arranged for the summer's most patriotic day.
The new East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad was welcomed with a big crowd of thousands on the north side of downtown, at the foot of what was then still known as Gallows Hill. Many attendees had never seen a locomotive before, and fled at the sight. The Fourth of July, 1855, ushered in Knoxville's era as a railroad city. Major industry arrived, and so did lots of newcomers from across the western world. Knoxville was never the same again.