By Shara Casey, Knox Heritage Intern
Located across from St. John’s Lutheran Church, on the corner of Tyson Street and North Broadway, Old Gray Cemetery is a beautiful example of the rural cemetery movement that was at the forefront of public design when it was dedicated in June 1852. The cemetery is named for 18th century English poet Thomas Gray, and that connection is evident in the early spring flowers that create the ambiance of a park under a canopy of the more than 40 arboretum-registered trees.
This quiet downtown oasis was founded by a board of seven trustees led by William B. Reese, then president of East Tennessee University (today, University of Tennessee), with its original eight acres of land a mile northwest of the city proper bought at just $500. Though the first burial was of a Knoxville native named William Martin, who died after an accident during the city’s Fourth of July festivities in 1851, a design for the property as a whole wasn’t adopted until 1853, when local architect Frederick Douglass (not the abolitionist) proposed a layout that incorporated the natural topography of the area and allowed for walking and carriage paths that ran by each gravesite. Many of these paths were removed over the years to make space for additional graves, but the main paths still allow for cars, and all graves are accessible to pedestrians willing to stray just a little ways into the grass.
While Confederate troops were stations in Knoxville, the cemetery’s board of trustees attempted to gain funds from military authorities for a fence to protect plots from camping soldiers, and while a fence was ultimately constructed, no military funds were assigned for the project. Also problematic was the use of Confederate minted currency to purchase plots, in one case $1,765 was paid only to have the board members refuse the money due to the circumstances of the war.
Maintenance issues did not start or end with the advent of the Civil War. As early as 1854, the board decided to limit carriage traffic in the cemetery to prevent horses from damaging vegetation. By 1870, the cemetery had become such a popular gathering place that a police presence was requested and bylaws put in place stating that “all persons visiting the cemetery shall conduct themselves soberly and gravely.” The nature of many of the tombstones themselves also contributed to upkeep issues. While most markers were and are carved from granite, the majority of those in Old Gray are made of softer local marble, which allows for more intricate Victorian style statue carving but also deteriorates more quickly.
In 1897, a Gothic Revival porter’s lodge was added just inside the Broadway entrance. Also constructed of Tennessee marble, it has a sloping roof covered in blue and green tiles that contributes to the late 19th century fairy-tale atmosphere.
Under the watchful eyes of classically inspired Victorian angels and many stately white obelisks are interred some of Knoxville’s most prominent citizens. Famous pro-unionist and post-war Tennessee governor William G. “Parson” Brownlow’s obelisk rivals the height of the trees around it. Several members of the pioneering McClung family are buried under a variety of grand monuments, and the Crozier family, including Lizzie Crozier French, makes itself known as well. Among many, many other Knoxville notables, artist Lloyd Branson, WWI pilot Charles McGhee Tyson, and Joseph Alexander Mabry, Jr., who helped establish Market Square, are also buried at Old Gray.
Today, occasional burials take place in older family plots, but the yard is otherwise closed to additional interments. Old Gray Cemetery remains open throughout the week to the public and offers an interesting alternative jogging or picnic area to other, busier locations in the center of Knoxville, whilst also offering periodic community events.
Knox Heritage preserves structures and places of historic or cultural significance for our community. Established in 1974 as a non-profit educational corporation, our organization works to protect and raise awareness of what is beautiful and irreplaceable in East Tennessee.