This winter has provided some of the best sledding in my memory. Maybe it’s not over yet.
Knoxville’s memory of sledding goes way back. In fact, sledding in Knoxville was nationally famous, if briefly, before the Civil War. In May, 1858, Harpers New Monthly Magazine apparently referring to a visit the previous winter, described a municipal adventure in such a droll way you have to learn some French to understand what they’re saying.
“The town is beautifully situated on several high bluffs,” the unnamed correspondent said of Knoxville. "It is substantially built with handsome store-houses, hotels and private residences, while among its public edifices is the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb which is especially worthy of note.”
Of course, that’s what became the Tennessee School for the Deaf, then in the building we now know as Lincoln Memorial University School of Law.
“The University of East Tennessee, more remarkable for its beautiful location than architectural elegance, stands on an eminence [the Hill] commanding an extensive view in every direction.” In Knoxville, the state school for the deaf, one of fewer than 10 in the nation, was more impressive than our tiny university.
Added to that description was a letter from another member of the party, who remarked that they stayed at the Lamar House, now the front part of the Bijou Theatre.
“I have already attended two balls and find the ladies eminently handsome and intelligent and pretty good dancers in the reel…. The city is lighted with gas and well watered…. Altho there is no Opera-House here they expect to have a custom house very soon.” As it happened, we got an opera house two years before the long-planned custom house was completed.
The report continues, “in the meantime the city is not wanting in public amusements especially in the winter. That most fashionable at present is the same that is so much in vogue in St. Petersburg and Paris, known as Les Montagnes Russes. Nature here has furnished facilities for this elegant amusement on the grandest scale; and the citizens lose no opportunity of improving their advantages.”
Les Montagnes Russes? It means "Russian Mountains.” And it’s pretty clear the St. Petersburg they refer to is not the one in Florida, which didn’t even exist then, but the one in Russia. “Les Montagnes Russes” was what the French, and the Americans of that era, called an invention introduced in Paris about 40 years earlier that would only later get an English name: the roller coaster.
But the droll travelers used the term metaphorically. Here we were sliding on ice, not rails.
"Citzens sliding downhill, mostly on backs of chairs, small boys on sleds which were evidently considered too tame for full-grown men, a crowd of ancients wrapped in shawls and wearing beaver hats, look on from the safety of the sidewalk, and several ladies peer down from a balcony.”
In interpreting that description 60 years later, newspaper columnist Lucy Templeton, who was born about 20 years after Knoxville winter-sports event, proposed that Knoxville’s Russian Mountain was the steep slope at the eastern end of Cumberland Avenue, from Gay Street down to Central.
The Harper’s correspondent added, “the artificial slides of Paris are mere child’s play when compared to these: while danger and broken bones only give zest to the sport—for whether in a fight or a frolic, a Tennessean, you know, does not stop at trifles.”
Did Knoxville introduce downhill sledding to America? I don’t think so, but it’s interesting that we made such a spectacle of it that we astonished northern spectators.