Calhoun on the River

Knoxville's shipwreck ?

By Jack Neely - Metropulse

Last Saturday at 3 p.m., a small group of interested people convened in a banquet room at Calhoun’s on the River, ostensibly to discuss the First Creek Tennessee River Shipwreck Project.

It takes some swagger to schedule anything on the last Saturday afternoon before Christmas, when friends and relatives are starting to blow through town and the stores are full of frantic shoppers. But Jim McNutt is a laid-back kind of guy.

He’s enjoying a pint of beer and the company of a small group of curious people: a rescue diver, a prominent attorney who happens to live nearby, and some friends and relatives.

Billed as an “informal meeting,” it was certainly that. McNutt gave no presentation, but on the occasions when one of the guests expressed curiosity about the shipwreck, he gestured toward a table.

“It’s all over there,” he said. On the table was a plastic bag with a sawn-off piece of weathered wood with a rusty 10-inch spike in it and some rough sketches of what he was talking about.

What he’s talking about is something many of us have noticed on the shore. Planted in the sandy beach between the Volunteer Princess excursion vessel and the mouth of First Creek, there are rectangles of symmetrical wooden beams, looking a little worse for wear, and usually underwater except in wintertime.

Metro Pulse ran a column about it a couple of years ago, based on the assumption that it was all the foundation of buildings, wharves, or warehouses that had once stood there.

McNutt is convinced the wood is the remains of nautical vessels. He first encountered the ruins around 1977, when, before waterfront restaurants, few ever ventured to the riverbank. Now the proprietor of a business called Marine Geographic, McNutt has convincing experience. He says he has done salvage work in the Virgin Islands, Honduras, Aruba, and even Cuba, sometimes hunting for 18th-century Spanish and English wrecks.

He’s worked on old riverboat sites on Florida rivers. He wrote a book, Quest for Shipwrecks, about his adventures. (It’s out of print, but he had a couple of copies on his table.)

He’s also recently worked on practical salvage operations in this area, like recovering a Caterpillar earth mover that fell into the water near the mouth of Third Creek.

“I do a lot of underwater work,” says the gravelly voiced troubleshooter. “I love it.”

“There are boats wrecked all the way up and down here,” he says. He talks about one near Island Home, and another on the Holston, a marble boat that is clearly visible.