Still Water: A Troubled Spring at the Fort Dickerson Quarry Lake

In Possum City by Eleanor Scottleave a COMMENT

quarry_sign1This Memorial Day marks the two-year anniversary of the legalization of swimming in the Fort Dickerson Quarry Lake in South Knoxville’s urban forest. Hopefully, it will not be the last. The policy change, enacted by Mayor Madeline Rogero’s administration in spring of 2013, followed a citizen-led push to decriminalize swimming that included a petition and letter-writing campaign.

As early as 1994, Mayor Victor Ashe envisioned the lake as “Knoxville’s largest public swimming pool” in a speech presenting the newly-named Harold Lambert Overlook on the quarry’s northern tip. This overlook is in Fort Dickerson Park where the cliff drops sharply and the water lies 100 feet below. To enter the water in a sane way, you must approach the quarry from the south side, where an old mining road enters the water at a gentle slope. Until recently, those who did so were trespassers on private land.

Around 2007, non-profit Legacy Parks, aided by the charitable Aslan Foundation, began buying up tracts of land in South Knoxville, including the greenspace along the south edge of the quarry. Their intention was to preserve these forests, meadows, and rocky crags from development by donating them to the city as public wilderness areas. With growing momentum behind South Knoxville’s emerging identity as an outdoor recreational destination, the profoundly beautiful quarry lake was too precious to hide away.

Even cops writing tickets to swimmers in the summer of 2012, when temperatures reached a record high of 105 degrees, expressed sympathy for the rule-breakers. On that first holiday of legal swimming, the 2013 Memorial Day weekend, the quarry was packed with boisterous swimmers toting floats and coolers.

This spring, the mood at the quarry is somber. Within the span of four weeks, rescue teams have pulled the bodies of three men from the water. All deaths resulted from jumps from heights of 80 feet or more, at least one involved alcohol. As in all city parks, alcohol is banned at Fort Dickerson Quarry and cliff diving is forbidden.

A May 12 News Sentinel story had this striking comment from Knoxville Fire Department spokesman D.J. Corcoran: “Some of the heights they’re jumping from are the equivalent to people committing suicide off the Gay Street Bridge.”

We can assume the three men who died this spring did not intend their lives to end on the day it did. Each made a tragic miscalculation. On April 12, a homeless man named Robert Cosson, 50, was drinking with a few buddies when he jumped from the 80-foot cliff on the western edge. On April 24, the day Joshua King, 36, died, he was enjoying a warm day at the quarry with family. And on May 9, a 20-year-old Belgian exchange student at Maryville College, Tijl Werbrouck, jumped from the same cliffs and never resurfaced.

One week after the death of Werbrouck, a patrol car sat at the head of the trail, and officers warned visitors against cliff diving. KPD has erected a fence around the most dangerous jumping site. In the nearly deserted quarry, only a few swimmers stuck close to the shallowest areas. Swimming is still legal, although people are expressing apprehension in message boards and conversation. At the 30-foot overlook, a homemade sign begs people to use caution and behave themselves, lest we lose the right to submerge ourselves in the most beautiful body of water in Knoxville.

quarry_80ftBeing in the quarry has contributed greatly to my happiness and well-being over the years. Floating alone in the center, supported by the green void, fixes something vital. A relic of Knoxville’s industrial age, the 350-foot-deep quarry is a vast man-made scar in the Earth. There must have been a time when it seemed like an irreparable open wound. Now, migrating birds rest on the water, snakes make their homes under the slabs of limestone. Deer come down to drink, and a transient misfit makes his home beside the water, carving a shelter out of the rock. There is no clearer example of humans’ compulsion to consume and destroy and Mother Nature’s persistent creeping power to heal.

John Nolt, philosophy professor at the University of Tennessee, writes that three ingredients are needed to manifest the sublime: solitude, immensity, and silence. The danger of the quarry is as real as its healing power, and this sublime piece of ravaged Earth deserves our respect.

Eleanor Scott's Possum City explores our urban forests, gardens, and wild places, celebrating the small lives thriving there. A freelance writer and columnist, she also maintains the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow in East Knoxville.

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