A Walk Through Old Gray Cemetery’s Fascinating History

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Old Gray, established in 1850, was Knoxville’s first garden-style cemetery. Although it’s privately owned, Knoxville has used the 13-acre space on the northwest corner of downtown almost as a public park since the Victorian era.

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A major effort is underway to improve its pavement and plantings—it has so many trees, Old Gray qualifies as an “arboretum”—and to reconstruct the once-famous Ella Albers Fountain, an elaborate Victorian fountain featuring three statues of women. It memorialized Ella Albers, the 37-year-old wife of Union veteran and pharmaceut ica l pioneer Andrew Jackson Albers. When and why it vanished is a bit of a mystery. Although one respected history states it was donated to a World War II scrap drive, a Knoxville Journal article in October, 1949, shows a photo of the tall fountain “in remarkably good shape,” though missing its two lower statues. By most accounts, it was completely gone before 1960, though its circular marble base remains today.

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Old Gray’s name is in honor of the English poet Thomas Gray, author of “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” the popular 1751 poem about mortality. The name was the choice of Sarah Cocke Reese, the wife of prominent attorney, judge, and university president William Reese.

Gray Cemetery became distinguished as “Old Gray” in the 1890s, after the establishment of suburban New Gray Cemetery on Western Avenue.

The first grave in the cemetery, that of ironworker William Martin, who was killed in a Fourth of July cannon explosion in 1851, was unmarked until recently.

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The largest grave in the cemetery is the tall obelisk that memorializes the Tyson family. It includes the graves of Lawrence Davis Tyson, a successful industrialist and World War I brigadier general; his philanthropist wife, Betty; and their son, McGhee Tyson, who died in a naval plane crash in the North Sea in the final weeks of World War I. Knoxville’s airport is named for him. Tyson Park is also their bequest to the city.

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Another obelisk memorializes “Parson” William G. Brownlow, the outspoken Unionist editor, Reconstruction-era governor, and U.S. senator. His grave is just across the lane from a memorial for Col. Henry Ashby, a Confederate commander who was shot to death in 1868 by former Union Maj. Eldad Cicero Camp—who is also buried at Old Gray.

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All three of the combatants killed in the infamous Mabry-O’Conner gunfight on Gay Street are buried at Old Gray, with the same death date indicated: Oct. 19, 1882.

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The graveyard has multiple literary connections, including parents of play wright Tennessee Williams and novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett. One famous grave is no longer a grave at all. Though still marked “TAYLOR,” the plot was once that of Robert Love Taylor, beloved governor and senator, whose burial here in 1912 drew an estimated 40,000 mourners. A thinly disguised description of his burial and subsequent exhumation, 26 years later, for reburial at his family home near Johnson City, appears at the beginning of Pulitzer-winning author Peter Taylor’s final novel, In the Tennessee Country. The author was the senator’s grandson.

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Lee “Bum” McClung, whose heroics at Yale, 1888-1891, made him one of America’s first national football stars—and who later became U.S. Treasurer, is buried in the elaborate McClung plot.

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Old Gray is associated with old-family affluence, but hundreds of immigrants, from France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, and other nations, are buried at Old Gray. Most were white, but several blacks, including at least one former slave, are buried here. One grave, for Grace Abbott, is inscribed “Born a slave, died a child of the king.”

For more, see oldgraycemetery.org.

Featured Photo: Most of the statues in Old Gray memorialize women who died young. The Ella Albers Fountain, erected in 1890, was Old Gray’s symbolic centerpiece for about 60 years. It disappeared by
degrees sometime in the middle part of the last century, but a major capital campaign aims to restore it. Courtesy of Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection.

Knoxville History Project |

The Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of and education about the history of Knoxville, presents this column each week to raise awareness of the themes, personalities, and stories of our unique city. You can reach director Jack Neely at jack@knoxhistoryproject.org

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