Established as a war memorial about 70 years ago, the ridgetop park is drawing new interest.
Sharp’s Ridge, Knoxville’s highest summit, straddles the northern part of town. Despite the difference in spelling, it’s believed to be named for the Sharpe family who once lived there. (It’s sometimes spelled without an apostrophe, but the city’s Parks and Recreation Department uses one.)
It was always familiar to Knoxvillians, even those who never climbed its steep slopes. It’s clearly visible from downtown, and in the background of many photographs of Knoxville from the Civil War. It was sometimes referred to as Knoxville’s “northern rampart.”
A few people lived on the ridge. Among them, for a short time in the 1860s, was a family of Jewish immigrants from Bavaria. Julius Ochs, who was a Union veteran, built a hillside home he called Ochsenburg. His oldest son, Adolph, would become famous as the most influential publisher of the New York Times.
In the late 19th century, Sharp’s Ridge was popular for hunting, and even developed a tradition for a Christmas-morning hunt.
From 1917 until the annexation of Fountain City 1962, Sharp’s Ridge formed the northern boundary of the city of Knoxville.
Though still privately owned, it was commonly used by the public. Bird-watchers flocked there for its diversity of warblers. Horseback riders, some of them staying at nearby Whittle Springs Hotel, followed its steep trails. By the 1920s, it was a common hiking adventure for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as a family picnic spot. Its rare views of the Smokies and of downtown Knoxville drew sightseers.
Wildfires once visited Sharp’s Ridge “several times a year,” according to a 1935 report. They were blamed on cigarette butts and “the unextinguished fires of wiener supperers.”
Inspired by the success Chattanooga’s Missionary Ridge, speculators repeatedly proposed residential development there. But in 1929, real-estate developer William C. Terry proposed trading 140 acres of the ridge’s southern slope to the city, with the intent of establishing a public “skyline park.” The excitement about his plan led to proposals for a ridgetop baseball diamond and tennis and basketball courts.
That deal didn’t work out, due to the cost, but throughout the 1930s, there was more and more talk of making it a public park.
World War II suggested a theme, and a new impetus. By 1943, the city was maneuvering to purchase the land as a war-memorial park. The North Knoxville Business Men’s Club began collecting donations for a built an elaborate memorial at the ridge’s highest peak, with an observation tower that could be climbed by interior stairs. Also proposed was an elaborate auditorium for outdoor concerts.
The first automobile road to the top of the ridge was completed in October, 1944, mainly to serve the war-memorial project.
That same year, the city was persuaded to sell part of its acquisition. Stuart Adcock, Knoxville’s leading broadcast innovator, who 22 years earlier had introduced radio to the city, wanted to build a tower at the top of the ridge for radio station WROL. He announced he intended to broadcast television from that spot after the war.
One leader of the Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park fundraising effort was inventor-businessman Weston Fulton, whose big factory, Fulton Bellows, had been important to American efforts in both world wars. Fulton died in 1946, before the project was completed. Prominent horticulturist Lee McClain spearheaded the effort after that. He was there on July 4, 1953, along with Mayor George Dempster, when the park was dedicated as a memorial to soldiers of all wars, with a large stone marker that remains there today.
In 1953, WROL went on the air, as did rival station WTSK, and these first television signals in East Tennessee were broadcast from towers on Sharp’s Ridge. In the early days, television studios, hosting wrestling matches, dance parties, and national celebrities, were located atop the ridge.
Recreational use of the ridge began to decline about 50 years ago, as it was criticized as a magnet for various sorts of crime. However, recent improvements in Sharp’s Ridge, including new bike trails sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, and trash pick-ups by the Tennessee Ornithological Society, have made it more popular in recent years. Another group called Veterans Heritage Site Foundation supports maintenance and improvements to the park, through fundraising events like last Saturday’s “Ridge Run.”
Sharp’s Ridge Memorial Park is accessible from Broadway, off Ludlow Street, about two miles north of downtown.