Lonsdale in the 1920s hosted community nights in the neighborhood. Courtesy: McClung Historical Collection
It's a March anniversary that largely went unnoticed. But 100 years ago this month, Knoxville took a dramatic step forward in fulfilling the vision of its leaders and citizens of becoming a modern, robust city. Realizing that vision also required legislative action in Nashville and the pen stroke of the governor.
On March 6, 1917, Gov. Thomas Clarke Rye signed the Private Acts of 1917 into law. The legislation - pushed by civic leaders in Knoxville - incorporated the neighborhoods of Park City, Lonsdale, Mountain View and Oakwood into the city limits of Knoxville.
Overnight, the size of the city grew six-fold.
Knoxville had experienced dramatic growth from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Adding the four distinct neighborhoods increased the city's complexity, and cumulative economic clout, but it also created some growing pains.
A history of Knoxville, "Heart of the Valley," edited by Lucile Deaderick, explains how Knoxville’s population increased rapidly between 1890 and 1940.
Knoxville - located on a major river and railroad line - was a trade center that grew as a consequence of the city’s available natural resources of coal, marble and timber.
With the annexations, City Law Director Charles Swanson notes, Knoxville gained "that critical mass of population to provide jobs to the manufacturer who wanted to put a new location or expand existing locations from somewhere else in East Tennessee. We could supply them with what they needed, which was workers, and really, nobody else in East Tennessee could do that.”
In 1917, according to "Heart of the Valley," the Tennessee General Assembly “increased the size of the city from four to twenty-six square miles.” The city's population doubled.
Several years prior to this expansion, the Tennessee General Assembly had passed the Private Acts of 1911. This legislation dissolved the Board of Alderman and created the Board of Commissioners. Some of the original commissioners included familiar names, now adorning schools and other buildings: Mayor Samuel G. Heiskell, Sam E. Hill, James Hensley, John W. Flenniken and George P McTeer.
In the same year, the City obtained the Public Library and housed all city departments except the Police Department in the building.
As outlined in the Private Acts of 1917, the Board of Commissioners had jurisdiction over Park City, Lonsdale, Mountain View and Oakwood with the “right and power to assess, levy and collect taxes for municipal purposes.”
The incorporation of these four areas also added new schools in Knoxville - Beaumont, Belle Morris, Claxton, Flenniken, Giffin, Lincoln Park, Lonas, Lonsdale, Marble City, Mountain View, Oakwood, Edgewood, Sam E. Hill, West View, South Knoxville and Park City-Lowry.
How important a milestone was the incorporation of these areas?
“Knoxville’s location being centralized to East Tennessee and being on a waterway - those were major assets and reasons to promote Knoxville as being the social and the economic hub of East Tennessee," Swanson says. "But it was in no way inevitable that Knoxville would be that city.”
"When this legislation passed in 1917, it kind of sealed Knoxville’s destiny to be that capital city of East Tennessee.”
The expansion of Knoxville’s city limits amassed the resources that the city had available for commerce and industry.
The major growth spurt came before Knoxville was even officially designated as a municipality. The governor signed the expansion into law on March 6. On March 26, 2017, Knoxville celebrated the 110th anniversary of being organized as a municipality under an Act of the General Assembly in 1907.
But there were growing pains, right? Sure.
Knoxville historian and author Jack Neely says he's not deeply researched the specifics of the city's overnight boom, but problems surfaced. For one thing, he said, not everyone living a country lifestyle wanted to be a city resident. And the changes affected the city's demographics immediately.
"Knoxville's population doubled, and its coffers were proportionately increased," Neely says. "Although parts of the four areas were already developed, annexation enabled some new development, like Sequoyah Hills, and encouraged other development, like North Hills and Holston Hills, all of which bloomed soon after that, in the 1920s.
"But one significant and not necessarily intended result is that the annexations were of suburban and semi-rural areas which were predominantly white, so it decreased the black community's share of the city, which had once been about 30 percent."
Swanson says there's always been inherent conflict between people who want land-use guidelines and those who prefer to have little or no government oversight. He's sympathetic to landowners who didn't necessarily ask to be a part of the city in 1917, but he thinks the vision of the city's leaders then directly shaped what Knoxville has become - and that's a good thing.
"The vast majority of residents today are happy with what we offer, what Knoxville has evolved into, because we can offer culturally and economically a whole lot of things that you can’t get in a smaller economy," he says. "I think most people appreciate these quality-of-life amenities, and that is why most people are here.”
- Communications intern Beverly Banks
Teacher Elma Bishop (seated, left) and Principal James Russell (seated, right) were educators at an Oakwood school on Oak Hill Avenue in the early 1900s. Courtesy: McClung Historical Collection
The Park City Council from the early 1900s. Courtesy: McClung Historical Collection