(WBIR-Knoxville) At the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus on the southern bank of the Tennessee River, 16 shovel-ready lots wait for new businesses to transform old farmland into their new high-tech homes.
"When you step on this property, it speaks for itself," said Cliff Hawks, CEO of the Cherokee Farm Innovation Campus. "This land is in the process of becoming a research and development park. It's easy to look at this as a real estate project, but what makes it different is this is highly specialized."
Cherokee Farm targets the most modern technology companies to partner with the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Lab. For all of its cutting edge plans, a large part of the peninsula is a portal to the past.
"We have 188 acres and 100 of that we cannot develop due to the archaeological nature of the property. There were seven [Native American] tribes that inhabited this property. Thus, the name Cherokee Farm."
While that is a logical explanation for the name "Cherokee Farm," it is not the entire story.
Search the undeveloped acres of the property and you'll find other foundations for the name. These foundations are large chunks of concrete and steel that were once part of an enormous bridge that crossed the Tennessee River and connected the tip of the peninsula to Kingston Pike. The overpass that spanned the river was called Cherokee Bridge.
If you peel away the vines at the pockets of overgrown areas along the Cherokee Farm property, you almost always find the vegetation is hiding remnants of what was once the Cherokee Bridge. The bridge provides a link between the present plans at Cherokee Farm and a not-so-different past in the late 19th century.
Then and Now: Cherokee Bridge Interactive Comparison Photos
"It was basically a big real estate project and they were trying to attract people to buy property and move into the area," said Jack Neely, columnist with the Metro Pulse and author of various books researching the history of Knox County. "You think of Cherokee Farm as an undeveloped dairy operation through the years. But hen you look at the old maps and see, gosh, there was something going on there 120 years ago."
Real Estate developers built the Cherokee Bridge to provide access to a planned residential addition city they branded "Cherokee." The new neighborhood was drafted with such detail, it shows up on old maps from the 1890s before it was even built.
"I call it Knoxville's 'Atlantis.' It's this almost mythological place that may have never existed. There's one classic old map from 1895 that shows something called 'Cherokee' over there with a few roads that I'm not entire sure if they were ever really built," said Neely.
The most elaborate drawing of the "Cherokee Addition to Knoxville" showed up in print in 1891. The Cherokee Land Company placed a full-page ad in the newspaper and promoted the lots on the peninsula as the residential neighborhood of the future, complete with a "magnificent steel bridge" that would be the "handsomest highway bridge in the South." The property featured a large city square and promised electric lights, electric cars, water from the purest springs, and all the most modern technology.
"It was going to be accessible by a steam yacht that would ferry people to and from the Gay Street Bridge downtown. They planned this area as this wonderful place in the bend in the river. You could get to it by boat and you could get to it by bridge. It was also advertised as a bigger and better version of what was then called 'West Knoxville,' which is what we now know as Fort Sanders."
The Cherokee Land Company completed construction of the Cherokee Bridge in 1892. Then the "economic panic of 1893" finished off any dreams of the grand suburb.
"It was the worst recession in American history before the Great Depression. Then it [Cherokee] just went belly up," said Neely.
The grand Cherokee Bridge stood along the river and slowly rotted away for more than 40 years. The condemned bridge was finally demolished in the 1930s.
The city of Knoxville bought the land known as Cherokee and gave it to the University of Tennessee. The school used it for agriculture. Therefore, the property became known as Cherokee Farm.
"Ever since the 1890s, that property was called Cherokee. You got to it by crossing the Cherokee Bridge. When it became a farm, it kept the name Cherokee. It's been called that ever since," said Neely.
The real estate deal may have failed, but the project still has a claim to fame by virtue of its name. The Cherokee development set a Knoxville trend of Native American namesakes in the area.
"The word 'Cherokee' was not used for much of anything by white people before the 1890s. This development on the river was the first thing that I know of that white people ever called 'Cherokee.' A lot of the planned roads and parks at Cherokee had Native American names. Then they began using the word Cherokee a lot. Within a few years we have Cherokee Country Club and Cherokee Boulevard. It was something people started being proud of that the Cherokee were from here," said Neely.
One can argue the economic hardship that killed the Cherokee development gave rise to the Sequoyah Hills neighborhood.
"The recession in 1893 put an end to a lot of plans in Knoxville. Cherokee was going to be this big Utopian type of residential area and the peninsula west of there was going to be a big steel mill at what is now Sequoyah Hills," said Neely. "The steel mill plans were also scrapped during the recession. In some ways Sequoyah Hills was 30 years later a version of the Cherokee development that was supposed to be on the other side of the river. There were a lot of the same designs, curved boulevards, and Native American names for the streets."
Today Cherokee Farm once again stands as well-designed piece of real estate, although it features a logo that pays homage to the land's true Cherokee heritage.
"On the logo, those seven markings are representative of the seven individual tribes that once inhabited the property," said Hawks.
As for the grand plans for a Utopian suburb south of the river with a trendy Native American name, all that remains are chunks of rock and rusted metal from a bridge that has been gone for more than 75 years. However, the vision of greatness for the property more than 120 years ago truly put the name Cherokee on the map in Knoxville.
Reporter's Note: See the "then and now" interactive photos for a comparison of past and present views of where the Cherokee Bridge once stood along the Tennessee River. Move the slider in the middle of the photo left and right to examine "then and now" scenes. Click the right arrows on the edge of the photos to switch between the scenes.
You can also see a very high-resolution copy of the 1891 plans for Cherokee at the McClung Digital Collection. Use the minus and plus slider to zoom into the selection.