A recent article in the Knoxville News Sentinel focused on Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield’s recent comment that Chattanooga is now within striking distance of passing Knoxville in population.
The comment came after census figures showed that Knoxville had nearly 18,500 more people than Chattanooga in 2000, but the 2006 estimates put the difference at just over 14,000.
The lengthy article, written by News Sentinel business reporter Josh Flory, includes some comments by both Mayor Littlefield and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam comparing the two cities.
It also quotes Chattanooga accountant Nick Decosimo, whose firm also has an office in Knoxville; former Chattanooga mayor Jon Kinsey, who has been involved in several Knoxville developments; and David Unruh of RiverCity Co.
If Chattanooga were to pass Knoxville in population as Mayor Littlefield hopes, it would not be the first time.
Out of curiosity, I went and looked up some old census figures and, for several decades in the early part of the 20th century, Hamilton County was actually larger than Knox County in population.
Because city populations are not always good indicators of urban size – Red Bank and East Ridge, for example, are not part of the city of Chattanooga, just as Farragut is not part of Knoxville – county populations usually better reveal a community’s size.
Knox County is an older county than Hamilton and was initially larger in population. For example, in 1820, the first year Hamilton had a census done, it had 821 people. Knox County that same year had 13,034.
Of course, some of the earliest counties of Tennessee encompassed much larger boundaries than they do today.
By 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, Hamilton had 13,258 people, while Knox had 22,813.
The 1880 census showed Knox County with approximately 15,000 more people, but by 1890, the difference had shrunk to 6,000.
Knox County extended the difference to nearly 13,000 in 1900, but the difference was less than 5,000 by 1910.
During the decades of 1920, 1930 and 1940, Hamilton was slightly bigger than Knox in population. In 1920, the populations were 115,954 in Hamilton and 112,926 in Knox, while in 1930, Hamilton had 159,497 people, and Knox had 155,902.
The 1940 census showed that Hamilton had 180,478 people, while Knox had 178,468.
Starting in 1950, Knox had 223,007 people, which was almost 15,000 more than Hamilton had.
Since then, Knox County has not looked back.
The 2000 census showed that Knox had 382,032 people, while Hamilton had 307,896.
Nashville’s Davidson County, by comparison, had 569,891 people in 2000, and Memphis’ Shelby County had an estimated 909,035 people in 2005.
The time period when Hamilton was larger than Knox was kind of the city’s peak industrial days and when such well-known products as Little Debbie, the Moonpie, Krystal, and, of course, Coca-Cola were becoming well known and in demand. Rock City and Ruby Falls also opened during that time.
Of course, most of the Coca-Cola bottling from which Chattanoogans were getting wealthy was being done in other cities.
Knox County’s growth starting in 1950 was no doubt due to the wartime development at Oak Ridge in Anderson County, which also brought plenty of new residents to Knox County. The ongoing nuclear-related research and work at Oak Ridge have continued to aid Knox County.
The large growth of the University of Tennessee since World War II has also likely been a factor.
Chattanooga, of course, did enjoy some additional growth in the first two or three decades after World War II with such fast-growing plants as Du Pont and Combustion Engineering.
While many of Chattanooga’s most famous businesses seem to have come out of the early 20th century – except maybe U.S. Xpress and Covenant Transport -- Knoxville has had several that have become well known and successful on a national or regional level over the last few years.
These include the Pilot convenience stores (run by the family of Mayor Haslam), Goody’s stores, HGTV, Ruby Tuesday restaurants, Clayton mobile homes, Regal Theatres and a large recreational boat-building industry by several companies.
Although I grew up in Chattanooga and still visit often and contribute articles regularly to the Chattanoogan, I actually have spent most of my time in Knoxville since 2005.
As a result, I enjoy pondering tangible attributes both cities have. These are not the typical qualities that a Chamber of Commerce official might promote, but unique offerings that cannot be duplicated anywhere else
Knoxville’s unique offerings include the University of Tennessee in general and pretty Ayres Hall, Circle Park and the College of Agriculture botanical gardens in particular. Neyland Stadium is also unique in a much louder way.
Others include the Strip area by UT, the Old City area of businesses and restaurants adjoining downtown, the Sunsphere, the view of the Smokies in the distance on clear days, the proximity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the way the community embraces historic Appalachian culture.
Also unique are the limestone bluffs along the Tennessee River/Fort Loudoun Lake on the western edge of downtown.
Also nice is the city’s expansive neighborhood park system, especially the Sequoyah Hills Greenway by the river, Lakeshore Park and Victor Ashe Park.
One must also include the pretty and historic homes and churches in North Knoxville and Sequoyah Hills, the great sense of community Fountain City has, the Tennessee Theatre and Market Square downtown, the architecture of Church Street United Methodist Church, and such great one-of-a-kind restaurants as Regas, Litton’s, the Fountain City Creamery and Long’s drug store soda fountain.
Chattanooga's unique attributes include -- at the top of my list -- the way Lookout, Signal and Raccoon mountains hover over the city in such a beautiful way. Although not nearly as tall as the Smokies, they still rank as high in beauty among many Chattanoogans.
And the stunning views off Lookout Mountain’s Point Park and Signal Point seem unique for an urban area.
Other great offerings are the beautiful homes in Riverview, Missionary Ridge, Lookout Mountain, and Fort Wood.
Also, North Chattanooga and Frazier Avenue cannot be duplicated, nor can Miller Park and Plaza, Coolidge Park, the Tivoli Theatre, Memorial Auditorium, or my favorite of all Chattanooga landmarks – the Walnut Street Bridge.
Chattanooga should also not overlook the uniqueness of having Baylor, McCallie and Girls Preparatory School. I am a Baylor alumnus and am obviously partial, but I have never seen a high school campus in the South as pretty as Baylor’s. UTC's older Gothic buildings are also nice.
And speaking of beautiful, how about Chickamauga Battlefield?
Other unique Chattanooga offerings include the Incline Railway, the Tennessee Aquarium and Tennessee Riverpark, and the Bluff View Art District, particularly Rembrandt’s coffee house.
And none of the great downtown Chattanooga restaurants has been able to surpass Mom’s Italian Villa for tasty food in my opinion.
In Chattanooga, you can have your chocolate mousse pie and eat it, too!