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Welcome to Boat Yard, Tennessee?

Ned Jilton • Sep 30, 2017 at 8:00 AM

I am reading the memoirs of Methodist preacher David Sullins. He preached in Jonesborough through most of the 1850s, helping to form a “female college” there in 1853. He came to Blountville in the early 1860s where he became the first chaplain of the 19th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the start of the Civil War.

I am doing some rewriting and extra research as I am holding onto hope that my Civil War series “Marching with the 19th” still might be made into a book, but a sponsor for the project is needed. Until one is found I will just keep working.

Some of the passages in Sullins’ memoirs that caught my attention were his daily notes of his trip from Knoxville to Emory and Henry College, where he attended classes as a young man.

He wrote about passing through “celebrated Bean’s Station” and “by night we reached the village of Mooresburg and spent the night at the Red Bridge a little farther on.”

The next day he wrote: “The fifth day we passed the good town of Rogersville, and on up the beautiful valley to Mr. Phipps’. This was a home of wealth, and gave us a royal entertainment; and here we got a glimpse of the very beautiful daughter of the household, who seemed a bit interested in a couple of tired boys who had stopped for a night’s rest.”

After a night’s rest, Sullins and his friend moved on to Kingsport. Except he didn’t call it Kingsport initially. “This day brought us to the boat yard, where two branches of the Holston River come together,” Sullins wrote.

I can imagine what Sullins saw as he passed through the village. The Netherland Inn was here along with the bank barn and the Presbyterian Church. There were a general store, probably a warehouse or two and docks along the river with a half-dozen or so flatboats tied up and being loaded or unloaded.

What Sullins might have heard also sparks my imagination.

I have been reading papers written by people from the area at that time, and they wrote as they spoke. They wrote of arriving from “Irlon” to settle in “Hockens” County. You can just hear the heavy Irish, Scottish and German accents Sullins must have heard riding through the village.

There were also Cherokee in the area. Sullins would later preach to congregations of Cherokee and noted that they seemed to talk without moving their lips and they put the accent on the last syllable.

Sullins recalled the time he called on one Cherokee known as Old Charley to pray. “He prayed in his own language; and while we could not understand what he said, we felt sure that our common Father understood him. His voice was very soft, and even musical at the first, but grew loud and almost vehement before he closed. We all said ‘Amen,’ and were glad that our God understood Cherokee.”

Then there were the accents of Africa. The King family for which Kingsport is named owned many slaves. The labor force in the area, even with the influx of immigrants, was not enough to maintain the plantations, ironworks and saltworks the Kings operated, so they used slaves to bolster the labor force.

So think about what Sullins heard, all those accents and languages blending together in this little river port village by the Holston. As a Piedmont bluesman I know of once said, the sound must have “tickled the ear.”

As I said earlier, Sullins called the place “the boat yard” and not Kingsport. He would later explain that the boat yard was now called Kingsport because William King, who owned the saltworks in Virginia, boated his salt down the Holston River from that point.

However, from what I have read, most folks early on called the area the boat yard or King’s boat yard far more than they called it Kingsport. This place could have easily become Boatyard, Tennessee, and we could be cheering for the Dobyns-Bennett Oarsmen: “Row, team, row.”

It was the Civil War that contributed, I think, to making Kingsport the dominant name known throughout the region.

All traffic moving east-west along the north side of the Holston River would have to come through Kingsport because of the river ford located here. This made the location a key defensive point to block the movement of enemy soldiers. There were two skirmishes fought here (Sept. 18, 1863 and Oct. 6, 1864) as well as one action (Dec. 13, 1864) that we call the Battle of Kingsport.

Early in the war, one Union officer wrote in a report that he had “arrived at King’s Port in route to Blount’s Ville.”

Another Union officer later wrote about “passing through the Village of Kingsport along the bank of the Holston River.”

By the end of the war, both Union and Confederate officers simply said “Kingsport” in their reports. Gone were the words “boat yard,” “village” and the apostrophe and “s” that the first officer used.

Soon the boats would be gone as well. Old Kingsport was fading and the railroad was the new king.

But a new Kingsport would rise years later.

Flatboats, like this one in front of the Netherland Inn, once lined the banks of the Holston River at Kingsport or, as it was more commonly called at the time, the ‘boat yard.’

Ned Jilton II is page designer and photographer for the Times-News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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