Winter in Knoxville

In Knoxville History by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Contrary to some assumptions, Knoxville has a winter.

Cold weather has played a big part in Knoxville’s history.

Some Knoxville industry was oriented toward contending with winter. Some major Knoxville-based businesses, notably C.M. McClung, sold cast-iron heating stoves. Knoxville Woolen Mills manufactured cold-weather clothing.

C.B. Atkin made a fortune specializing in fireplace mantels, at a time when they were sometimes very elaborate. Atkin had an international trade, and claimed to be the biggest mantel manufacturer in America. Mantels made Atkins a major figure in Knoxville history. He was a leader in the construction of both the Bijou and Tennessee Theatres.

Before the 1960s, Knoxville was infamous for its coating of soot. Industry was one culprit, but the bigger contributor was likely the thousands of residents burning the region’s high-sulfur coal in furnaces for heat. For decades, coal soot darkened buildings, cars, and even clothing.

Many remember the most extreme example of cold weather in Knoxville. On Jan. 21, 1985, the temperature—the real temperature, unadjusted by “wind chill”—plunged to 24 below zero. That one day, Knoxville was the coldest point in the United States! The freakish event was one example of a “polar vortex.” In fact, the current Wikipedia definition of the term “polar vortex” shows a global weather map of the day.

Knoxville had approached that mark before. The years 1877 and 1884 saw lows of 14 and 16 below, respectively.

Many people also remember March 13, 1993, “the Blizzard of ’93,” when 15 inches of snow fell on Knoxville overnight. Some called it the Storm of the Century. However, Knoxville has seen heavier snows.

On Nov.22, 1952, 18.2 inches of snow fell. An estimated 30,000 Knoxvillians were without power, some for as much as two weeks. It interfered with traffic to a Tennessee-Kentucky football game at Neyland Stadium. A reported 4,000 UK fans were trapped on the road to Knoxville.

Another snow, in February, 1965, set the stage for a snowball fight on Cumberland Avenue that turned deadly when a truck driver, angered at being mobbed by snowballs, shot and killed a UT freshman. In an unrelated incident, another truck driver died as a result of a blow to the head by a hard-packed snowball.

In early December, 1886, by some accounts, Knoxville received 22.5 inches of snow over three days.

In late December, 1899, a group of gamblers borrowed a sternwheeler steamboat called the Oliver King, late at night. With a cargo of fighting chickens, they intended to leave town, where they were less likely to be harassed by the authorities. Cockfighting was illegal in Knoxville. However, as they got to the vicinity of Bearden and Lyons Bend, the boat was stuck in the ice. The men were trapped on the boat for two days until a yawl broke through the ice and rescued them.

There are tales of the Tennessee River freezing over in Knoxville, and also people who insist such an event is impossible. However, accounts from the Great Freeze of 1918, supported with a few rare photographs, sound credible. After several weeks of sub-freezing weather, beginning in December, 1917, the French Broad froze first, then ice flows joined together in Knoxville. Ice gathered around houseboats and industrial barges and “ground some of them into kindling.”

Much more common was that shallower parts of the river would freeze, especially on the south side, near downtown, where there were shoals and a long island. So did area ponds, such as the pond in the vicinity of Jackson Avenue, known for a century as the Flag Pond. Ice-skating opportunities were so common that in the 1890s and early 1900s, Gay Street hardware stores sold ice skates, and often ran out of stock.

Knoxville had roller-skating rinks by about 1900, but the city’s first ice-skating rink opened in 1962. The Ice Chalet, in Bearden, is still open today.

About the same time, Knoxville launched its first professional ice-hockey team, the Knoxville Knights, who competed at the newly finished Civic Coliseum.

The Market Square holiday skating rink started in 1986, but after about three years it was abandoned for more than a decade. It returned after the revival of the Square in 2005.

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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