George W. Callahan: A road for a railroad man

Beth KinnaneOur Town Stories, Powell

The story from June 1927 hailed the winners in butter fat production amongst Knox County dairy cattle. I have no idea how the entries worked or if everyone was in the competition or it was just part and parcel to routine checks among local dairy producers. But B. R. Farmer was the county cow tester, and that month’s winner was the herd belonging to George Washington Callahan.

By 1927, Callahan had mostly retired to his Valley View Farms out Central Avenue Pike near the current road now named for him just west of the Dante community on the north slope of Black Oak Ridge. His herd averaged 32.79 pounds of butter fat. His operation came in third place for most economical, based on feed cost per pound.

George W. Callahan photo from Men of Affairs in Knoxville, 1917.

The eighth of 10 children, Callahan was born in 1862 in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, but moved with his family to Knoxville as a child in 1867, settling near Powell. His father, James Francis, was a millwright by trade, and that informed Callahan’s early career. Like many a young man of Irish heritage in this area, he began working as an apprentice stone cutter for George Fenton, president of Fenton Construction and vice president of Gray Knox Marble Company.

Eventually the two Georges went into the monument business together. By 1890, the same year his father died, Callahan had bought out Fenton, and the business continued as Geo. W. Callahan & Brothers with his brothers Simon and John. Two years later he married Caroline Louise Grau, also a Pennsylvania native from Lancaster County. That same year he was already serving as a Knoxville alderman, having a residence in the city.

Interestingly, Callahan was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a year before the Confederate army pretty much burnt the town to the ground in a prelude to the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederate monument in Bethel Cemetery in East Knoxville was donated by his company.

Callahan wasn’t content with the success of his monument business. His interests branched into developing real estate (building cottages on Folsom Street, for example) and then into railroad construction. His many contracts included construction of the L & N from LaFollette to the Kentucky state line, the double tracking for the L & N from Nashville to Birmingham, Alabama, and 75 miles of A. B. & A. from Brunswick, Georgia, to Birmingham.

By 1917, Callahan was retired from the railroad business, but did continue to take on contracts for highway improvements. He had branched into banking, serving as a director for City National Bank. Gradually most of his remaining contracting business fell by the wayside as he pursued his dream of living “as a country gentleman.” He spent a lot of his considerable fortune improving his 1,200-acre estate, planting rows of magnolia trees along his fences to protect them from his award-winning cows and other livestock.

The entrance to Valley View Farms from Central Avenue Pike (Photo source: Knox County Library digital archives)

He enjoyed five years of full retirement at Amberwood Hall, the name of his home, before illness took him in November of 1927. A member of Holy Ghost Catholic church, he was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery alongside both of his parents and a brother who died just a few months before he did. A father of seven children, three of them did not survive past the age of 2. He was survived by his wife and four daughters. At the time of his death, it was said he laid more railroad track than anyone in Knoxville and probably all of East Tennessee. His elegant home was taken out by the construction of I-75

Beth Kinnane writes a history feature for It’s published each Tuesday and is one of our best-read features.

Sources: Knoxville Journal & Tribune digital archives, Knoxville News Sentinel digital archives, Knox County Library digital archives, Men of Affairs in Knoxville, 1917 by Baker and Towe

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