King’s Alley: A Modest Landmark Vanishes, But Not Without a Trace

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

should know better than to point out something interesting about my hometown. Every time I do, it seems, the interesting thing vanishes. I have a pretty terrible record in that regard.

About a month before the Mercury launched, I wrote a blog post about an interesting curiosity, a tiny metal landmark that spoke of a lost neighborhood. It had been there for about a century, and I figured it wasn’t going anywhere soon. But I had to go and write a post about it. And last week, seven months after my blog appeared, I got a note from my friend Chad Hellwinckel that it was already gone.

It was just east of the Old City, a rectangular bit of bronze embedded in an old sidewalk on East Jackson, on the long block between Patton and Randolph. In one direction, it said EAST JACKSON AVE. But perpendicular to it, sometimes obscured by a thin layer of dark mud, was a less-familiar phrase: KINGS ALLEY.

It could still shine, if you buffed it a little with shoe leather. There’s no alley there now, just the sprawling yards of Knox Rail Salvage. A paved bit suggests maybe it used to be a driveway into an industrial area, but even that’s not open now.

At the McClung Collection I found that King’s Alley—in city directories, it’s most often spelled with the apostrophe—was once a modest street. But it hasn’t borne that name, at least not officially, since the mid-1920s. That brass marker was at least 90 years old.

The word “alley” is disreputable these days, but a century and more ago an alley was a small urban street. Alleys were usually just one-lane affairs, and probably didn’t get much through-traffic, but they weren’t always just service alleys at the backs of buildings, either. There were residences in alleys, sometimes businesses, too.

A century ago, King’s Alley was on city maps. It was once home to probably 100 people.

It first appears in public records in 1891, a little residential street off the industrial railroad-frontage avenue then known as Hardee Street, before Hardee was renamed East Jackson.

King’s Alley led south to First Creek, crossing Campbell Street and Paddleford Street on the way.

That first year, it was home to 13 households, eight of them black, five of them white. They were all working people of modest means, several of them single women who worked as laundresses or cooks. One black cobbler named Lee Starr put down roots on King’s Alley and stayed there long enough to witness several changes in the neighborhood.

The street was part of the neighborhood known as Cripple Creek. It was a mixed-race neighborhood, especially in its earliest years. It became more and more purely an African-American community, though. By 1900, all of King’s Alley’s residents were black.

It became more dense with the years, a handy place to live if you worked for the railroad, for the packing houses, or at Keller’s Foundry, just down the street.

In 1925, William Jennings Bryan’s funeral train groaned by, a block away, for the former secretary of state’s burial at Arlington. That year, King’s Alley’s name was changed, for reasons I wish I could even guess about, to Quebec Alley. I can’t tell whether any French Canadians were ever involved in this part of town, but Quebec Alley’s new name didn’t change its basic makeup. By then, it was home to 20 or 25 households, all black.

Meanwhile, the term Alley as a name for a residential street fell out of favor. Around 1938, its name was changed to Quebec Place. But it didn’t change much. Lee Starr, the shoemaker, was still a resident of Quebec Place, 50 years after he planted himself on King’s Alley.

However, historian Bob Booker, who grew up in that neighborhood after it was renamed Quebec, told me he knew residents of King’s Alley, which was one of several familiar residential alleys neighborhood, as he recalls it in the ’40s: Rock Alley, Drew’s Alley, Fairchild’s Alley.

“In later days they tried to clean up the old addresses for the young people,” he told me, “so the stigma of living in an alley wouldn’t be there.” He adds that most folks kept calling it “King’s Alley.”

In the early 1950s, there were still about 20 families living on the little street. They might still be there today if not for urban renewal. In 1957, eight of the houses on Quebec Place, aka King’s Alley, had been torn down. By 1958, all of them had been torn down. Its former residents moved elsewhere, some into housing projects.

Over the next 15 years, other streets closed, buildings were torn down, and to downtowners, the old Cripple Creek area, overshadowed by a new elevated highway, no longer seemed a part of things. And each year it seemed to offer less and less trace of the era when it was a neighborhood where people actually lived.

In the early 1970s, Quebec Place disappears altogether, no longer a public street, but just part of one of the private industrial storage yards down here.

But here’s this small brass plaque in an old sidewalk. Dislodged, it would fit in your pocket. Until last week, it was a very rare reminder of a time when thousands of people lived down here, in a place once known as Cripple Creek.

We’re lucky that Chad Hellwinckel, agriculture prof and co-founder of the Knoxville Permaculture Guild, owns a pickup truck. The day he spotted the work tearing up that sidewalk, the workers told him it was just going to the landfill, and as far as they were concerned, he could have it. He returned with his truck, and the men obligingly loaded it in for him, several hundred pounds of concrete with a little bronze marker almost intact. He planted the chunk of East Jackson Avenue with the King’s Alley marker in his Parkridge backyard. He likes it fine there, but says if the city wants to put it back, as a landmark of an almost-forgotten neighborhood, he’ll surrender it.

Photo by Tracie Hellwinckel

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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