"Here's a grave," says Jim Shular in his quiet way. Not just any grave. We're walking on graves of pioneers. People who settled this land with Spencer Clack, Elijah Rogers, Isaac Thomas and James McMahan--founders of Sevierville.
Say what you will about Shular's methods. He knows they're open to debate. The activist editor of the Sevier County Historical Society journal holds in each tanned hand a strand of bent copper wire maybe 8 inches long. The wires cross, as if drawn together magnetically. This witchy motion signals human remains to Shular, as we step slowly across a depression in the earth maybe 50 feet wide and twice as long.
It's a plat of land the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) plans to cover over with one more road through the heart of Sevierville. Shular sees it as another stake through the heart of a community fast losing its identity.
Lots of people feel this way. Members of heritage organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the American Indian Movement have been protesting with signs at the Sevier County courthouse to draw attention to what they see as a desecration.
The Forks of the Little Pigeon Cemetery was established in 1789 to serve as the final resting place for those who attended a log Baptist church here. That building was ruined during the Civil War by Confederate soldiers who rode their horses in and out of it and who likely overturned gravestones out back, says Shular.
By any reasonable standard the cemetery is historical.
Still, the issue of preservation is a confusing one. This ground has been gouged by bulldozers several times over. A store was built here in the 1950s. Later, engineers widened and deepened the river in a flood control project. Both efforts likely obliterated some graves. Light gardening has gone on here as well.
In 1976 Sevierville honored its dead by establishing a small leafy park, preserving a handful of stones, including the marker for Spencer Clack's grave.
Yet old-timers can remember when gravestones could be found all along the riverbank. The planned road will cover this land when it crosses the Pigeon River to tie into busy Highway 66. Few think one more road will solve the county's traffic woes. Yet unwanted roads are a fact of life all across Tennessee.
It's bizarre. At a time when budget constraints are threatening the state's schools and parks; at a time when the state is raiding tobacco settlement money to make ends meet; at a time when our state's very credit-worthiness is being degraded and the government's finances are grim all around, you can bet on one exception. Road-builders are thriving.
And they are doing so by building roads that nobody much wants. In vain, citizens protest the four-laning of the road through Townsend, formerly "the quiet side of the Smokies."
And they protest plans to gouge a road through the heart of the University of Tennessee main campus. They protest a new road through South Knoxville tying into the so-called "bridge to nowhere" built there in the 80s. They protest roads of questionable validity through Upper East Tennessee and West Tennessee and Middle Tennessee.
One recent Tuesday I had occasion to drive from Murfeesboro to Smithville. For 50 miles mine was the only car in sight. Yet all along the route I could see where construction was set to turn that sleek two-lane highway into a four-lane expressway. For what? For who?
Hundreds of millions of dollars lavished on TDOT year-in and year-out could be spent for other things were it not for outdated laws that say taxes collected on gasoline can only be spent to build roads. Yet few dare take on the highway lobby that keeps such laws on the books. Ask yourself who stands to benefit by the new super-duper highway being pushed through your neighborhood. Then look at what's lost.
Here in Sevierville, where Jim Shular is witching for the remains of pioneers, crews already have torn down a nice house made of Tennessee Crab Orchard stone. And the folksy wooden home and shade trees that define one end of this plat of land are set for removal. Many more will be condemned as the road pushes through.
Soon yet another river of cars will flow across the Pigeon River, adding to what may be the biggest premeditated on-going traffic jam in America. Each year a population the size of New York City drives through Sevierville, deepening the haze that obscures the Smoky Mountains, and turning every side-road, alleyway and parking lot into one more jam-packed alternate route for frustrated locals and tourists alike.
Another highway through the heart of Sevierville won't solve anything, says Shular. He thinks it'll only add to the congestion, as new roads to Newport and Cosby and another planned for the north side of Sevierville come on line, drawing even more traffic.
"The vultures are circling," says Shular. He could be speaking for many of us when he says, "I'm tired of sitting in traffic and wasting all my time so they can get rich."