Looking back at Knoxville a century ago

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

As we close out 2021 still in the grips of a global pandemic, a century ago Knox County was fresh out of the Spanish flu epidemic that started on the heels of World War I.

Though it’s had different locations on the radio dial, WNOX debuted in 1921 as one of the first 10 stations to broadcast across the country.

Whereas now you can’t throw a stone without hitting a local watering hole or craft brewery, prohibition was the law of the land as the twenties started to roar. Getting a wee draught required a little more illegal effort.

Workers across the county caught trains to bring them into factory jobs in Knoxville, where streetcars helped get people around the city.

The baby girls arriving in 1921 were the first born with the right to vote. Tennessee was the crucial 36th state needed to pass the 19th Amendment.

Today, Neyland Stadium is one of the largest in the country with an official capacity of just over 102,000. In 1921, there was no stadium, but the work began to turn a swampy pasture into Shields-Watkins Field. The student body was conscripted to help clear and clean it up. Ayres Hall opened on the UT campus that same year, much to the dread of everyone who’s ever had to climb “the hill.”

While the Tennessee Volunteers were in the early days of getting a proper field of their own to play on, the most anticipated football game in these parts was, arguably, the match up between the Central and Knoxville high schools.

First Creek still flowed open (and stinking) to the Tennessee River before going underground for the construction of James White Parkway.

The original Riviera Theatre on Gay Street was the largest built in Knoxville at the time and could seat up to 1,000 people. The Queen and the Strand were showing silent films as well, and the Bijou featured live entertainment. Our beloved Tennessee Theatre wouldn’t debut for another seven years.

With the investment, preservation and re-development over the past decade, downtown has returned to being a bustling center of entertainment and commerce it was a century ago.

Happy New Year, Knoxville. The make-over looks good on you.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com


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