Undiscovered Gems

Looking into the fascinating past of Knoxville, Tennessee

Growing up in the Southeast, I have traveled extensively throughout the Southern states—they are my beloved stomping grounds. But my hubby, Aaron, who is from the West Coast, is relatively new to the area. We share a passion for travel, and both love exploring new destinations as well as finding a fresh take on old favorites. When we were coming up on our first anniversary, we decided to celebrate with a road trip through a few cities that he’s never visited. Our favorite stop by far was Knoxville, TN.

My father graduated from the University of Tennessee. So, this was a trip I had made with my family many times before, and I was excited to share it with Aaron. I’ve always loved the unique charm of the city and the unassuming knack it has for awakening and engaging all of my senses. There’s music and mountains, art and history, delicious food, and adventure galore. I showed Aaron all of my favorite places, but we really wanted to find a few lesser-known locales that could shine a new light into the history of this great town. And maybe I could learn something new with Aaron along the way.

A glimpse into the past

A history buff, Aaron was excited about our first stop, Hamilton Mound, Knoxville’s only medieval ruin. My dad told us about the history of this archeological burial site, a Woodland Indian Mound on the University of Tennessee’s Ag campus, which was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Exact numbers are unknown, but it is believed that the site contains anywhere between 10 to 100 graves. It was

We spent a moment of silence in the surrounding garden to honor the lives of the Cherokees and the ancestors that built the mound, which dates back as early as 644 AD. We strolled around the beautiful garden paths admiring the native flowers and plants and reading the signs displaying fascinating details about Knoxville’s Cherokee history and culture. The garden not only educates people about the area’s Native American influences, but it also serves to physically protect the mound and its rich heritage.

As the old adage says, “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” And Knoxville takes great care to acknowledge the diverse history and people on whose shoulders the city now stands. A great example of this is High Ground Park, where Fort Higley, the place where Union soldiers defended Knoxville when the Confederate army had taken siege of the city, has been preserved.

Aaron and I strapped on our hiking boots and hit the winding trails along the high ridge that overlooks the city, providing incredible views of Knoxville. The wind blew gently through the tall canopy of trees as we took in the surrounding peaceful beauty.

In creating the park, the remnants of Fort Higley were cleverly preserved and incorporated into the design. Along the way, Aaron was excited to read the posted signs that explained more about the role that Fort Higley played in the Civil War. Union forces built it in 1863 to protect against Confederate attack.

A nod to the arts

Rachmaninoff statue at World's Fair Park in Knoxville, Tennessee

I am a big music fan. I took piano lessons for ten years as a kid, and while I am certainly no concert pianist, I have always appreciated the beauty of classical music, especially the famous pianist, Sergei Rachmaninoff. So, I was thrilled to see a statue of the Russian composer right here at the World’s Fair Park in Knoxville! I was excited to learn that one, I was looking up at the only statue of Rachmaninoff on American soil, and two, that his 1943 performance at the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Hall was the last in his impressive career. I looked closer at the sheet music clutched in the statue’s hand. It was Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor, a piece that Rachmaninoff actually played at the concert.

Next, moving from music and film to Pulitzer Prize-winning literature, we visited Haley Heritage Square to see the statue that honors the legacy of Alex Haley for his talent in literature as well as his generous humanitarian work. The sculpture shows Haley sitting with a book in his hands, gazing out over the Smoky Mountains that he loved. At 13 feet tall, the bronze statue looms large, honoring the author’s contributions to the arts as well as the community of Knoxville and surrounding areas.

And the story continues

We decided to keep rolling with the literature theme of our visit and check out the underside of the west end of the Hill Avenue viaduct. Aaron is a massive Cormac McCarthy fan, and this area is the setting of the main character’s residence in McCarthy’s 1979 novel, Suttree. Aaron was excited to walk along Gay Street and check out Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern. With the connection to the novel, along with the long and devoted relationship between beer and books, we had to stop in for a drink.

At the bar, we enjoyed a couple of pints of craft beer and great conversation with the bartender. We talked to him about local authors and mentioned the other famous Knoxville people and places we had been learning about on our trip, and he suggested we visit the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection Reading Room at the East Tennessee History Center. He told us that it’s the largest collection of resource materials for Tennessee history, including photographs, books, and an extensive manuscript collection.

We headed over to see what other pieces of history we could uncover. Walking into the Reading Room, I was in awe. We learned there that in a previous life, in 1874, this room had served as a courtroom, where trials like that of notorious outlaw, Harvey Logan, more famously known as Kid Curry and friend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, took place. But now its elegance had been carefully restored, and subtle touches from local artists connected it with modern-day Knoxville.

As we stood there in the peaceful quiet, I imagined the stories these walls could tell and thought about all that we had learned that day. Knoxville, a city that I thought I knew fairly well, had surprised me with hidden stories and secret gems. I mentally added these new finds to my favorite places and wondered what other undiscovered treasures this place had in store.

Acquaint yourself with Knoxville dining favorites.