By Mike Steely
It’s a great time to get out in the cool weather and take the family for a ride. There are a lot of interesting places to see within a few miles of Knoxville.
Old Washington in Rhea County was a small community that was the county seat. Judge David Campbell, a relative of the founder of Knoxville’s Campbell’s Station, settled there after the signing of a treaty with the Cherokee. He moved to the Tennessee River and promoted the area for settlement. Just down the road, his son-in-law was the commander at Hiwassee Garrison.
As the little town developed, the river crossing became the site of Washington Ferry and that business continued until the Ned McWhorter Bridge was built. Today the west ferry landing site still exists and has some appropriate signs.
The last time my wife and I drove there we took I-75 south to Athens, turned west on Highway 30 and stopped briefly in Decatur, the county seat of Meigs County, to admire the mural of the Old Blyth’s Ferry on one of the downtown buildings. We then continued on Highway 30 to the Tennessee River and crossed into Old Washington. Aptly the highway is named for William Jennings Bryan, national minister and star of the “Scopes Monkey Trial.”
If you expected a town you’ll be disappointed. Although there was once a little city there, the coming of the railroad through Dayton to the east in Rhea County caused that town to boom instead. The county seat was moved to Dayton and Washington languished. The brick courthouse built in Washington was dismantled and the bricks went to the building of the new county headquarters.
David Campbell, who was also a major in the militia, passed away and his grave is now in the David Campbell Park in Washington near his home site. His son-in-law, Thomas John Van Dyke, commander of the Hiwassee Garrison to the south, is buried beside him.
But there appear to be three graves there and legend has it that Campbell’s favorite riding horse is interred in that third grave.
Today Old Washington is not much more than a wide spot on a very narrow road.
You can continue on Highway 30 to Dayton, stop by the courthouse there and tour the Scopes Museum or Bryan Bible College. Returning you may choose to take Highway 29 north to Spring City and on to Rockwood and Harriman. There you can slip on to Interstate 40 East and drive back to Knoxville.