Exploring Chattanooga's Islands - Williams Island

Tuesday, January 7, 2003 - by Harmon Jolley
Williams Island as seen from Signal Point. Click to enlarge.
Williams Island as seen from Signal Point. Click to enlarge.

During the cold, gray days of winter, it’s easy to dream of traveling to a warmer place. Some people take a cruise to the islands at this time of year. For the next three weeks, we’ll also take a tour of some islands and learn about their history. However, these will be ones that are in the Tennessee River, not in the Caribbean. Our first port-of-call: Williams Island.

First, let’s locate the island, for I find that many do not know where Williams Island is. If you have ever been to Signal Point or driven down Signal Mountain, you have likely gazed at the Tennessee River below. Williams Island is the large island that divides the river channel, and is over two miles long, and 450 acres in size. It is located near Baylor School at the north end of Moccasin Bend, and serves as the entrance to the Tennessee River Gorge. When one is standing on the island, the view of the surrounding river canyon is spectacular.

Williams Island and others like it were formed over many years when something at that location caused the river’s current to be slower in the center than in the edges. When the velocity of the current was reduced, silt began to be deposited in the middle of the river, followed by the growth of vegetation that stabilized the island. Deep channels formed where the river flowed around the island, and this caused even more silt to be deposited. Some river islands are near the deltas of tributaries, which affect the river’s current and add their deposits of silt.

Though uninhabited by humans now, the island was occupied by many generations in the past. Sites dating from 12,000 B.C. have been identified. Archaeologists have also researched a Mississippian-era Indian village which stood on the island from roughly 1000 A.D. to 1650. The village included the leader’s residence, a temple and burial mounds, and many wooden houses. Spanish trade artifacts from the late 16th century were found on the island. In 1776, Bloody Fellow, established the village, Tuskegee Town. Beginning around 1800, John Brown operated a ferry to the island, and he was known as being an excellent guide for travelers through the rapids of the river gorge. The island received its present name when Samuel Williams acquired it, following the Cherokee removal.

Throughout the centuries, families have farmed on Williams Island. My mother’s family lived on tenant farms until they were able to buy their own land, and Williams Island was one of many addresses for the Hickman family. They rented the land from the Hampton family, who were descendants of Sam Williams. In the early 1930’s, my grandfather built a flatboat, and moved the family and all of their possessions to the island. They were one of nine families there, and lived in a small wood-frame house. The soil of Williams Island – deposited there over the millennia - was very fertile, and they never had to use fertilizer. There was a barn and silo which the families shared. The children often found arrowheads around the island. When they weren’t helping with chores, they would sit on the riverbank and watch the steamboats and barges going by. Mother told me that my grandfather would not let them venture to the south end of the island, where moon shiners operated. Her older brothers rowed a boat each day to Pineville Elementary, but when my mother reached school-age, my grandmother insisted that the family move to the mainland.

In February, 1977, a fire destroyed over 100 acres on Williams Island and some structures including a barn. Firemen battled the blaze by pumping water from the river. The island was considered for the location of a bicentennial park during the 1970’s, but this did not take place. In 1989, the State of Tennessee purchased the island from the Hampton family, and it is currently managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. My mother and I participated in a public tour of the island in 1999, and she kept those in our group intrigued by her stories of growing up on Williams Island. “It was hard times,” she recalled. She was able to point out the silo – which had survived the wildfire and the elements – but was now nearly covered by vegetation.

If you would like to comment on this article, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@signaldata.net.


Copies Of Chattanooga Photo Book Collection Still Available At Zarzour's, By Mail

Copies of books in the Historic Chattanooga Photos series by Chattanoogan.com are still available at Zarzour's Restaurant and by mail. A fourth, and perhaps final, volume, Old Chattanooga Photos, is planned to be issued later this year. Railroads In And Around Chattanooga , featuring Chattanooga's intriguing railroad history, has 69 chapters and covers rail history here and ... (click for more)

Chattanooga Families By John Wilson: The Adams Family Went With The Union

When the Civil War broke out, members of the Adams family in Hamilton County went with the Union. Hamilton Adams joined the Sixth Mounted Infantry that was organized in Chattanooga, and his son, James M. Adams, became a sergeant in the same unit. McKinney Adams, a brother of Hamilton Adams, was in the Sixth Infantry as was a younger McKinney Adams, who was the eldest son of Hamilton ... (click for more)

Finley Stadium Board Members Step In After Paul Smith, Staff Depart

Members of the board of directors of the Finley Stadium Corporation have been filling in and dividing tasks related to running the facility since Paul Smith, past executive director, and his staff resigned at the end of February. Mr. Smith has been credited for the financial turn-around of Finley Stadium, which at one time had to be subsidized by the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton ... (click for more)

Firefighters Extinguish Fire At Senior Living Apartment Complex On Highway 58; 1 Resident Falls During Evacuation

A fire broke out at a senior living facility on Highway 58 Tuesday afternoon. At  2:50 p.m. , several agencies responded to the Silver Tree apartments (formerly known as Napfe Towers) at 5465 Highway 58. Th Highway 58 Volunteer Fire Department responded to the scene and reported heavy smoke coming from the sixth floor of the nine-story building. The Highway ... (click for more)

Slaxxon Regret - And Response

Back in the seventies my three oldest brothers had a buddy named Steve Slack. “Slack” was a star soccer player at Baylor and he grew up on Lookout Mountain, which is where I grew up. He and Jimmy, Henry and Bill went to the University of Virginia where they were roommates in an old, beat up house that was painted pink. Naturally, the place became known as the “Pink Palace” but lest ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Oh Yes, I Loved West

One of my most beloved friends died early Saturday morning at the age of 67. Then again, West Oehmig’s only brother – King – died a couple of years ago at 63 so it wasn’t by happenstance I remembered Abraham Lincoln’s famous line: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.” Here are two brothers who lived larger than any other pair I can ... (click for more)