The ever-surprising riverside strip just recently known as Suttree Landing Park keeps surprising us.
When that long-neglected patch emerged as a city park earlier this year, I’d assumed it was always either industrial or vacant. As we discovered recently, in the 1880s and ’90s, it hosted a half-mile horse-racing track that doubled as a bicycle-racing track, and later a collegiate track-meet venue.
Flat space is at a premium in Knoxville, so naturally this one attracted multiple uses. If you’d happened by there on one particular warm day 134 years ago, though, you’d have found something completely different.
You would have seen knights in colorful garb, astride powerful steeds, bearing lances.
One was known as the Knight of the Azure Field, another the Knight of the Mirrors, another the Knight of Albion. They were all there, taking their turns, at full gallop, lances leveled toward their targets.
It was the long-awaited day of the Tournament. Philip Smith, who works at Knox County Archives, found a retrospective feature about it in the public library’s Papers to Pixels amenity.
Who knows how it started. There’s a suggestion that there may have been some jousting here before the Civil War. Knoxville was addled with visions of Sir Walter Scott, who romanticized knighthood in novels like Ivanhoe. One of Knoxville’s best-known mansions, Melrose, home of wealthy banker Thomas O’Conner—who had died in an infamous gunfight on Gay Street months before—was named for the home of Sir Walter Scott. Decades after his death, his romantic novels were still as popular.
In 1883, the same year as the Tournament, Mark Twain denounced Scott as a primary culprit for what happened in 1861, in feeding the South a romantic and unrealistic ideal of aristocracy.
Knoxville’s ruling class liked Scott fine. And naturally considered the city a fine place for an occasional tournament.
It was a high point of the grand Music Festival of 1883, which featured several comic operas, including The Pirates of Penzance, performed at Staub’s Opera House. That Friday afternoon at 3, about 2,000 people filled the riverside grandstand. At the time, a wooden bridge crossed the river at Gay Street. Modern people know better than to ever walk that far, of course. But by 1883 standards, it was an easy stroll.
The 10 combatants, mostly young men in their 20s, too young to have fought in the Civil War, dressed as medieval knights, except for young businessman Frank McClung, who dressed in buckskin and called himself the Knight of Hiawatha.
The three judges were esteemed local gentlemen: S.B. Luttrell and Bryan Branner, both recent mayors, plus E.J. Sanford, the Union veteran and businessman. Sanford had a unique judicial qualification nobody knew about. He was father of a future U.S. Supreme Court justice.
In those days every event of any consequence required a poetic “oration.” Doing the honors was Capt. Alex Allison, a Confederate combat veteran and postwar druggist who in his later years became a newspaperman known for his turns of phrase. In a stirring speech that referenced Ivanhoe, Prince Rupert, Don Quixote, Paladin, the Shield of Minerva, and “the battle-axe of the Lion-Hearted Richard,” Allison gave homage to knighthood, describing how it inspired daring in both sides of the Civil War.
But, he declared, it was a new era: “I hail you as the Knights-errant of the new Knighthood born of the Advanced Thought, the high endeavor, the aggressive reforms, the conciliation, the virtue, patriotism and intelligence of the busy, stirring, living present.”
Still, Allison said, the theme and ideal of the riverside event was “Honor and the Ladies.”
There was a bugler and a herald, who described the rules. Rather than actual jousting, which can be dangerous, the knights used their lances to spear rings suspended from three poles along a course. They had to be skewered at a full gallop, in less than seven seconds.
There followed trials of horsemanship, which involved hurdles. When all the riding and lancing was done, two champions emerged in a dead-heat tie. They were cousins. One was the Knight of Hiawatha, Frank McClung. The other was the Knight of the Southern Cross, lawyer Hugh L. McClung. The latter was known for his flair for the romantic. He’d later build the hilltop architectural vision known as Belcaro, above Fountain City.
The two McClung rivals faced each other in some sort of horseback runoff. Hugh took the prize.
That night saw a Coronation Ball at the Opera House, fitted with a dance floor. The coronation didn’t start until 10 p.m. Hugh crowned the fair Lillie L. Jones as his queen. After that late-night coronation, there was a big celebratory dance. Dozens attended, each as a different romantic character: Henry IV, Sinbad, Don Juan. One outlier came as Oscar Wilde, then a controversial Irish essayist still in his 20s.
It went on until dawn.
Horseback tournaments were at least an occasional feature of Knoxville high society for another 30 years or so. In years to come, Lon Mabry, whose father and two brothers had been killed in Gay Street gunfights, would be a tournament champ.
We have tournaments today, of course, but they generally involve tennis or bridge. It’s just not the same.
The dreamy mansions of the era, Melrose and Belcaro, have long since been torn down. But the champions of that day in 1883 are both remembered on a university campus half a mile downriver.
UT’s McClung Tower is named for Hugh McClung’s daughter, who after a life of tragedy used her father’s estate to endow it. Hugh’s cousin and runner up at the riverside tournament is Frank McClung, Jr., who is the honoree of McClung Museum.
And there’s an odd and probably meaningless coincidence. Today, the museum named for the contrary Knight of Hiawatha is the region’s best repository of Native American artifacts.
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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