One of Knoxville’ original streets, Gay Street earned the distinction of one of “America’s Greatest Places” by the American Planning Association in 2012. It was the site of both the founding of the University of Tennessee (as Blount College, in 1794), and the state of Tennessee, founded by a constitutional convention believed to have taken place at the southwest corner of Gay and Church in 1796.
It connects on one end to the Gay Street Bridge, the 1898 steel bridge over the Tennessee River. Built for pedestrians and horses, it turned out to be plenty sturdy for automobile traffic. However, no use has been more famous than that of Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, the Wild-West outlaw who rode the sheriff’s stolen horse across this bridge in June, 1903, never to be seen again. It’s the setting of several scenes in the Cormac McCarthy novel, Suttree, set in 1951.
Gay Street’s name, taken for granted by generations of Knoxvillians but often startling to new-comers, honors an older street in Baltimore, a city much admired at the time of Knoxville’s founding. It became Knoxville’s main commercial street, but also its mainstream entertainment district. Today, it’s only half-jokingly called Knoxville’s “theater district.” Gay Street’s theaters have made it a natural focus for 21st century festivals, like Big Ears and Rossini.
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