Big Things in East Tennessee

Published: April 28th 2017
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I saw two main sites today: the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN, and the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge. As a connoisseur of presidential lore, the Andrew Johnson site was a must-see for me in this neck of the woods; I was aware of its existence for a while, since I regularly stop at these places on my travels (check out my trip from last July and August if ye doubt my veracity). I was not, however, aware of the existence of the Titanic Museum until about 2 weeks ago. I had a long conversation with my friend Jim about his travels around the South, and when I told him I would be up here for a few days, he told me not to miss out on this museum. I did some online searching and thought that (1) the price was too high and (2) that it couldn't be all that good if it was in Pigeon Forge, TN. I was pleasantly mistaken about that last part.

The reason for my trip is the SEC Men's Tennis tournament in Knoxville, TN. People who know me in "real life" will know that I am an avid fan of the UGA team - they do consistently well on the national stage, and I even know a few of the players in person. I attend all the home matches (when I'm not out of the country) and typically like to make a road trip or two to see them play at different schools. This year, I went to Auburn, since it wasn't so far away. And the tournament is in Knoxville, which is about 4 hours from my place. I would probably have made this into a day trip (we don't play until noon on Friday), but since there's a high likelihood of advancing to the next level, I decided to make it a short road trip. I knew I wanted to check the Andrew Johnson site off my list, which meant I was going to need at least an extra day for the trip; so I left Thursday morning.

The trip up to Greeneville, TN, was pretty uneventful. It was dreary weather, with only occasional full-on rain. But the quickest route took me through South and North Carolina, which was an odd way to get to Tennessee, I thought. Nevertheless, I made it to the site in about 4 hours. The winding roads through the Appalachian mountains that form the border of North Carolina and Tennessee were especially fun. A couple of observations from the road: I hate when I get in the middle of a game of tractor-trailer leap frog; and the McDonald's in the gas station at Exit 19B off of I-85 in South Carolina should be avoided. Just don't do it.

Greeneville, TN, is a pretty small town. It seems as though their only claim to fame is being the residence of President Andrew Johnson before and after he left the White House. He wasn't even born there, but when he fled his hometown of Raleigh because of some b.s., he eventually settled in Greeneville and became the tailor before entering politics. His original home is free to visit, and in fact the whole site is free. There is a museum across the street from the home, and this serves as the visitor's center. They have the tailor shop completely enclosed inside the museum, which is fun to see when you enter that room. It's the original building and all, so they figured this was the best way to preserve it. Inside the visitor center is a large room with the historical film played on demand. And then of course there's the gift shop. I bought a pin (typical me) and a presidential ruler because it was the first one I had seen with Trump on it. The affable ranger who gave me instructions and then completed my purchased made a special effort to thank me for my purchase - did I mention that the entire site was free? I'm not sure how they afford to pay all the rangers, and now with the budget cuts...

There are two other sites that comprise the National Historic Site - Johnson's nice house from the 1850s-1870s, and the grave site. I could've walked to the house, but since I had only 3 minutes to get there for the tours (which leave at the bottom of every hour), the ranger suggested I drive. They have great driving directions printed out for all the sites. When I got to the house, the tour had just begun. The house isn't big, but we probably have about 40 minutes of a tour. We saw the bedrooms and parlor - with a portrait of Johnson that the family had to leave behind at the start of the Civil War (remember, Johnson sided with the Union as a senator from Tennessee); a neighbor had hidden the portrait and then returned it when the family came back after Johnson's presidency ended in 1869. Upstairs was more eventful - Eliza's room and a couple of other bedrooms. Apparently, they had to make room for 18 people at one time, and I really can't imagine how they fit all of them in there. The park has done a good job of preserving the place.

On my way out of town, I stopped by the grave site, which sits atop a "signal hill" with a narrow road to the apex. Johnson's grave is up there, along with his whole family's, and it is surrounded by an iron fence. The cemetery is still used for veterans of wars.

My second (and final) big thing of the day was the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge. As I said above, I was skeptical about its value. But how many Titanic museums can one find south of the Mason-Dixon Line? It's hard to miss the museum, even amidst all the gaudy sights around Pigeon Forge. It's the one that looks like the front half of the Titanic is about to plow into the road. It's on Parkway, which is the major road that runs through town (US Hwy 441, I believe). My hotel, the Pigeon River Inn, is only a block or two away, so it was a perfect place for me to stay. I got to the museum around 4:45, wondering if I would have enough time. I spent about two hours there, and I never felt rushed by the staff or that I was going to run out of time. When I was looking at tickets online, there were time slots that you had to choose, so I assumed it would be a group tour; nope. I was given a ticket and an audio guide, paid my money, and was told to enjoy the museum. While I was inside, there was a tour group that came through, but while I listened to the guide giving her spiel at a coupe of places, I found that the group didn't really get time to enjoy the displays. So I was thankful for not having done that.

There are no photos allowed inside the museum, so I won't be uploading any for this blog, sadly. What I can say, though, is that this place was amazing. There are two floors to the museum - the bottom floor is mainly about the construction of the Titanic and some of the stories from the 3rd-class passengers and crew members. They have displays with artifacts, re-creations, and drawings or maps. There are a few interactive bits, but mostly you read the displays and listen to your audio guide. The highlight of the bottom floor is the photograph room, where you see the majority of the photographs of Titanic with people on it; these are pretty rare, since most of the photos are from a distance or only show construction, before it allowed passengers. At the end of the bottom floor you come to a full-scale replica of the Grand Staircase (and find out that the flooring was the most expensive element of the staircase, being a recently-invented material known as linoleum; I kid you not). You climb the staircase to the upper floor and get a glimpse of first-class accommodations and the final hours of the Titanic.

This was the part where the emotional whirlwind starts to pick up. It really starts when you walk through the ship's bridge and then out into the freezing night. Really, they have a huge block of ice (that you can touch) and water that is said to be 28 degrees Fahrenheit that they insist you stick your hand in. The air conditioning is also set very very low. When I got back to the hallway with "normal" temperatures, I was very happy. But at the end of this hall is the room devoted to all the children on Titanic, and it all just sweeps over you. Pictures of most of the kids, with their ages, all divided into class of accommodations (and even 2 crew members, sadly). Throughout the whole museum, when there is a display about a particular family or crew member, they leave you in suspense about whether they survived the disaster. With the kids, it's a little easier sometimes, since most of the photos show them a little older than what they are listed in the description. But sadly many do not. Then you move into this room where they have the increasing angle of the deck as the ship began to sink - three different stages side by side, and I tried the final one (listed at about 2 minutes before the ship went under), at which point it all starts to overwhelm you. How could people have held on to those rails? And then there's the lifeboats, and finally you get to the room where they list all the passengers, again divided into class of accommodation or crew, with survivors in the top list for each section and those who perished in the bottom list. The final element is the search for Titanic in the 1980s; it turns out that the guy who founded this museum was the principal financial backer of the 2nd expedition to Titanic in the 1980s. There's the connection.

You exit through the gift shop (naturally), and though I'm not typically one for souvenirs, I did get a t-shirt and a reproduction of the 3rd-class drinking mug, along with a couple of post cards and my necessary pin.

My hotel is pretty nice, though I'm glad I only paid $40 for the night. If I had paid more, I could've gotten a balcony and view of the river. As it is, my room has no balcony and it looks across the street to the Hard Rock Cafe. Oh well. My evening concluded with a viewing of the film The Circle, which I can't really recommend. But at least the ticket was only $5, which surprised me. I would've expected a tourist town like this to jack up the prices. Instead, there was a sign outside the theater saying that all films for the Spring would be $5. Lucky me. Tomorrow, I'm on to Knoxville to support my tennis team in the tournament.

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