Atomic technology, forgotten battles, mountain hideaways, Appalachian culture, and endless natural beauty come together on the Top Secret Trail: All the best-kept secrets of Tennessee history are right here.
1760s - 1860s - SETTLERS TO CIVIL WAR
The first Europeans to visit the Knoxville area were members of the Henry Timberlake expedition, which passed through in December 1761. By 1786, James White, a Revolutionary War officer, had built White’s Fort near the mouth of First Creek for hunting, trapping, and trading with Native Americans and long hunters from the early American colonies.
A 300-mile long road through the wilderness from Clinch Mountain in East Tennessee to current-day Nashville, Avery’s Trace was commissioned in 1787 for settlers heading westward. Because the trace passed through Cherokee lands, tensions led to attacks that soon required settlers to travel in large groups, accompanied by well-armed state militias.
President George Washington appointed North Carolina surveyor William Blount governor of the newly created territory south of the Ohio River in 1790, which contained what would become Tennessee. One of Blount's first tasks was to resolve territorial issues between settlers and Native Americans. This was accomplished with the Treaty of Holston, negotiated and signed at White's Fort in 1791.
Blount chose White's Fort as the territorial capital, and renamed it Knoxville after Revolutionary War general and Secretary of War Henry Knox. Blount helped to lead Tennessee to statehood in 1796, and was elected to represent the new state in the U.S. Senate. The Blount Mansion is now a historic landmark and museum.
The early settlers arrived with very little and fashioned almost everything they needed from the resources available from the land. They built furniture from mountain timber, spun thread from sheep’s wool, forged tools from mountain iron, and even weaved baskets and chair backs from husk.
From handmade Native American flutes and pine needle baskets to quilting and pottery, the arts and crafts of the Appalachian region are as diverse as its landscape. The ingenuity and creativity at the heart of Appalachian culture are prominently featured at the Appalachian Arts Craft Center and the Museum of Appalachia, both located in Clinton.
Moses Fisk was an accomplished surveyor, mathematician, and educator who traveled to Tennessee in 1759 to survey the land and stake his claim on land in the new territory. Fisk dreamed of creating a grand new city in the new state, and played a critical role in the creation and surveying of what became Jackson, Smith, and Overton counties, acting as the principal surveyor on the projects.
In fact, much of the state of Tennessee’s northern and eastern borders were defined by Moses Fisk, who was tasked with leading the survey of that portion of the new territory. While Fisk was skilled and brilliant, it was thanks to some “errors” in his calculations that a great deal of what should have been within the state of Kentucky ended up within Tennessee. In 1803, Fisk established Hilham, the first town in Overton County, and a year later, he opened the Fisk Academy, one of the first girls’ schools in the South.
The first military action in the Civil War in Tennessee occurred at Travisville. Known as The Affair at Travisville, this brief 1861 engagement brought the reality of the conflict home to the people of the Cumberland Mountains.
Most locals believed Travisville to be too far off the beaten path, and thus safe from the pending conflict. With no major roads or railways crossing through the area, they questioned why an army would ever come through this remote place. But when a Union scouting party located an encampment of 100 Confederates in the area, troops of the 12th Kentucky Infantry were ordered to attempt to take the Confederates by surprise and order their surrender. The Union soldiers were also ordered to open fire upon the Confederates should they refuse to surrender.
While the Confederates were indeed surprised, they immediately fled upon being ordered to surrender. The Union forces opened fire, killing four Confederates; the remaining troops retreated into the surrounding hills. Though this was but a small skirmish, there was no longer any doubt that war had come to Tennessee, and that no place there, no matter how remote, could be considered safe from the fighting anymore.
As the last state to secede from the Union, Tennessee’s pro-unionist population had done all they could to delay the inevitable. As a result of the strong unionist sentiment in Scott County, the local government there declared themselves as the “Free and Independent State of Scott” in 1861 in protest of Tennessee’s secession from the United States.
Though neither the United States, the Confederate States, nor even Tennessee had recognized the county’s secession from the state, the proclamation was repealed when Scott County “officially rejoined” the state of Tennessee some 125 years later.
1860S - 1940S - INDUSTRY, ENVIRONMENT, AND PROHIBATION
Founded in 1880 by English author Thomas Hughes, the town of Rugby is widely regarded as one of the most authentically preserved historic villages in America. Rugby's original Victorian architecture and incredibly picturesque setting have since made it a popular destination for visitors from across the globe.
The Rugby experiment grew out of the social and economic conditions of Victorian England, where the practice of primogeniture—a custom where the first-born son inherits the entire estate, leaving nothing for other siblings—had left many of the "second sons" of the English gentry with no land to farm and no money to pursue any other enterprises. Rugby was to be a colony where England's second sons could own land and achieve successful farming ventures.
Unfortunately, the colony suffered from a number of problems, including a typhoid epidemic, lawsuits over land titles, and the poor soil of the Cumberland Plateau. Most of the original colonists had died or moved away from Rugby by 1887. And while the utopian experiment largely failed, a small community survived there throughout the 20th century. Rugby is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, and has been painstakingly preserved for posterity.
This part of Tennessee once produced most of the nation’s coal, the primary fuel source for industry, manufacturing, and transportation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While profitable, mining coal has always been a dangerous job. The worst mining disaster in Tennessee history—and the fifth deadliest in U.S. history—occurred on May 19, 1902, when an explosion, likely due to the build-up of methane gas, occurred within the coal mine at Fraterville.
216 men lost their lives due to the accident, and while most were killed instantly, there were also miners who survived the initial explosion but were trapped by the collapsed mine walls. Slowly running out of breathable air, they scrawled farewells to their loved ones on the walls of the mine before dying; unfortunately rescuers could not reach them in time due to toxic gases. Some of these inscriptions were later transferred to the headstones of many of the miners’ graves at Longfield Cemetery, and at Leach Cemetery, where a monument to all those who died in the Fraterville Mine Disaster was erected in their memory.
In addition to coal, Tennessee also supplied the nation with a steady supply of timber and agricultural products. But by the early twentieth century, poor farming practices had left soil eroded and depleted of nutrients throughout Tennessee, while the logging industry had decimated the forests. As a result, the economy was already unstable, and then the Great Depression occurred making life in the state even more difficult.
To help address the severe economic problems facing the mostly agrarian region, in 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska led the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which taught farmers how to improve crop yields, replanted forests, and created a series of dam systems to generate electricity and help control flooding.
Although many families were displaced when the government1940S created the artificial lakes required to run the dam system, the plentiful and inexpensive electricity attracted many new industries to the region, dramatically boosting employment and improving the quality of life for all residents.
In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Dale Hollow Dam to help with their flood control efforts; the dam also used the water’s power to generate electricity for the area. Unfortunately the picturesque town of Willow Grove was right where the lake needed to be created. The citizens fought the plan unsuccessfully, and Willow Grove is now known as the “Atlantis of Dale Hollow Lake”—the state’s first real secret city—and the town’s buildings remain a favorite spot for scuba divers to this day.
The Temperance Movement promoted complete abstinence from alcohol; the members of the movement believed the consumption of alcoholic beverages to be the cause of many of the social ills of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Even in Tennessee, where corn whiskey—that “good ole mountain dew”—was considered not just a staple but part of the local cultural heritage, the movement still managed to attract converts and exert influence over public policy, eventually helping to make the nation-wide prohibition of alcohol a reality from 1920 until 1933.
Harriman, once known as “The Town that Temperance Built,” was originally envisioned as a place where no alcohol could be manufactured or consumed. Another famous Fisk, Clinton B. Fisk, a Civil War hero and the founder of Fisk University in Nashville, was a major investor in the East Tennessee Land Company, the original developer of the planned town.
Though both the company and the temperance movement eventually failed, Harriman survived. The original “Temperance Building,” once home to the long-defunct American Temperance University, is now home to Harriman’s government offices and museum. The community is also home to many lovingly preserved examples of late 19th century Victorian architecture.
Ironically, in direct opposition to the ban on alcohol, one particular route in this part of Tennessee is infamous for its use by moonshiners both during and after prohibition. “Thunder Road,” now present-day Highways 33 and 25, was once a pike used by smugglers with fast cars to secretly deliver their product from the many stills in the hills to customers in the towns below.
1940s - Present - SECRET CITY, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND NEW LEGENDS
At the turn of the 20th century, a local man named John Hendrix prophesied the creation of the secret city of Oak Ridge. Hendrix believed he was shown a vision in which “Bear Creek Valley someday will be filled with great buildings and factories, and they will help toward winning the greatest war that ever will be.”
Some 40 years later, as if overnight, a city of 75,000 people suddenly appeared in Oak Ridge. Isolated, but with easy access to hydroelectric power via the TVA dam system, Oak Ridge was chosen by the government in 1942 as the ideal location for the new Manhattan Project, created to help the Allies win World War II.
Engineers, physicists, scientists, and technicians—all the best minds from their respective fields were brought to Oak Ridge. The location and purpose of the new city were considered top secret; it didn't even exist on any map available to the public. The workers used code names and wore special badges, and were not allowed to discuss what they did there with their coworkers, families, or neighbors.
It wasn't until the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 that most realized the purpose of their work: creating the first atomic bombs. The Y-12 building, where uranium for the first atomic bombs was enriched, can be viewed at the New Hope Center, which documents the story of the “secret city” and the people who worked there. Today, the complex manufactures uranium components for the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
Many changes took place in America after the war, and it was in Tennessee where a whisper of dissent grew into a roar for justice. Like every other place in the southeast United States in the 1950s, in Clinton, African-American and white students were made to attend separate schools.
“Separate but equal” was the idea used by segregationists to justify their policies of racial division. However, the schools that African-American students were forced to attend were underfunded, understaffed, and provided a poor education compared to that available at the schools whites could attend. African-American parents in Anderson County challenged the school system and the poor quality of Green MacAdoo, the school their children attended.
In 1954, the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education ended school segregation in the U.S., and in August 1956, students of the “Clinton 12” walked together for the first day of classes at Clinton Senior High School, previously restricted to whites. Though treated with respect by teachers and fellow students within the school, many local people were enraged by desegregation and made their anger public by protesting outside the school.
These first twelve African-American students suffered threats, violence, and harassment on their way to and from school during their first year, requiring Tennessee Governor Frank Clement to station 600 National Guardsmen in Clinton to keep the peace. With dignity and their heads held high, the students stood their ground, and the following year, Bobby Cain became the first African-American student to graduate from a formerly “whites-only” public high school in the South, helping to affirm that the injustice of school segregation had finally come to an end.
One of the most significant monuments to African-American history in the country is located on the Top Secret trail: a statue in Knoxville that memorializes Alex Haley, who made the city his home in his final years, and is known around the world for his acclaimed novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The 1976 book won a Pulitzer Prize and its television adaptation won over 145 awards, including nine Emmys.
Knoxville’s nearby Market Square also has a rich history: It was here where the RCA talent scout who would “discover” Elvis Presley first heard the young singer’s record playing, where world-renowned fiddler Roy Acuff first began performing, and where novels by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists James Agee and Cormac McCarthy were set.
Knoxville is also home to the all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball among both men and women, Patricia “Pat” Head Summitt. Summitt grew up near Clarksville in a farming family, and the hard work on the farm and the high standards held by her father helped Summitt learn to set even higher goals for herself. An Olympic basketball gold medalist and coach, Summitt was named Head Coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Vols in 1974 when she was only 22 years old. Now retired, Summitt led the team to an astounding record 16 SEC Championships, 15 SEC Tournament Championships, and 8 NCAA National Championships.
The Top Secret Trail also contains some of Tennessee’s most hidden, most scenic wildlife areas, with an incredible amount of natural history to experience. The Obed National Wild & Scenic River is one such place: Daddy's Creek, Clear Creek, Emory River, and the Obed River are together considered a “National Wild and Scenic River,” containing spectacular views and ample opportunities for white water rafting. The Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area contains one of the highest concentrations of natural bridges in the eastern United States, and another rare but intriguing geological feature: Hoodoos are tall, thin, and dramatic spires of rock that were formed by erosion over eons of time. The Big South Fork recreation area also contains the Blue Heron Mining Community, a former 1930s coal mining town that is now a living museum. And finally, the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area (WMA) contains 154,000 acres of public land including 600 miles of ATV/multi-use trails, the North Cumberland WMA is home to one of the largest wild elk herds east of the Mississippi River.
With secret cities—both above ground and under water—miles of shoreline old and new, heroes and legends, natural wonders, and masterpieces of Appalachian culture and Victorian architecture all around, you’re sure to find a secret you love best about Tennessee history on the Top Secret trail.