Taking the Benton Loop
By Mike Steely
Getting out in the winter with the family can be inexpensive if you just take a ride and visit some of the most interesting places in our region.
Polk County, southeast of Knoxville, is one of the more rural parts of East Tennessee and skirts the bottom of the Smoky Mountains. Benton is the county seat and the little town only has about 1,500 residents. It was founded in 1840 shortly after the forced removal of the Cherokee.
Originally known as McKamy’s Stock Stand it was named for Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton.
The last time my wife and I traveled down that way we took the long way around, starting in Maryville and heading south on Highway 411 through Vonore, Madisonville and Etowah. Each of those communities has its own appeal such as the large historic railroad museum in Etowah. There’s also a train excursion at that station.
Benton is just southeast of the junction of the Ocoee and Hiwassee rivers and just to the east of town are the Smoky’s Unicoi Mountains. Just south of town is the little settlement of Old Fort, one of the sites of a removal camp that held Cherokee families before the forced relocation to Oklahoma. Old Fort Marr blockhouse was relocated from there to Benton, where the log structure still stands. Just beyond there is Tennga, Georgia, aptly named because it sits near the Tennessee and Georgia state line.
Benton sports the Cherokee National Forest and, nearby, is the Ocoee Dam that was used for whitewater rafting during the Atlanta Olympics. A scenic hiking trail near Benton leads to Benton Falls.
But the Benton attraction that many people visit is the grave of the Cherokee Beloved Woman, Nancy Ward. She was married several times including to a white trader and operated a trading post along the Ocoee. She’s buried with relatives and her hilltop grave is marked not only with a historic marker but with round river stones carried there by well-wishers.
Nancy Ward has many Cherokee and white descendants in Tennessee and out west. She died before the Trail of Tears removal and was, at times, in opposition to some tribal members when they continued the war against white settlers in our region.
The Nancy Ward Gravesite State Park is located just off Old Highway 411 southwest of Benton and is open to visitors. If you’re interested in learning more about Nancy Ward. you can find lots of information online or at the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. That museum has a silver ring said to have belonged to the historic woman.
After Benton, you can double back to Highway 30 and visit the old community of Reliance or continue south to the Ocoee and take Highway 74 to Cleveland, Tennessee, where you can catch Interstate 75 back to Knoxville.