By Mike Steely
Imagine you are traveling by horse, carriage or stage in the early 1800s. You’ve come from North Carolina headed into East Tennessee and you come to the Holston River.
How will you cross the water? There are no bridges and few places to ford the wide river.
You pass through the little village of Strawberry Springs and, just beyond there to the west, you see a line of people back up along the water’s edge. Across the river you see a wooden ferry slowly coming toward you.
You have arrived at the McBee Ferry, founded in 1790, and the only crossing of the Holston River between Kingsport and Knoxville.
The ferry was developed by a Halifax, Virginia, native, William McBee, who recognized the need for a crossing. In 1792 he purchased the north side of the river and built a ferry large enough to carry passengers, wagons and livestock. He later bought the land on the south side of the river and became a wealthy person with a holding of some 1,000 acres.
It is interesting to consider what major Tennessee historic figures and other famous people crossed at McBee’s Ferry. French botanist Andre Michaux wrote about crossing there while visiting East Tennessee.
The ferry passed to his son when William died in 1826 and Ganum McBee abandoned the ferry after building the first toll bridge to cross the Holston River. A flood demolished the bridge and the McBee family resumed operating the ferry crossing.
The family operated the ferry until 1902 when Knox County apparently bought it. A bridge was built just downstream from the ferry entrance in the 1930s. A historic marker about McBee’s Ferry is located along Mascot Road on the south side of the bridge. Just across the bridge is McBee Lane that leads to the homestead and to the north ferry landing.
On the south side of the bridge Mascot Road comes from Andrew Johnson Highway 11E and, shortly before entering the ridge, intersects with old Strawberry Plains Pike. There’s a new park there near where Old Strawberry Plains Pike joins Highway 11E and that three-acre park is all about McBee Ferry.
Legacy Parks acquired the property and plan to create McBee Ferry Landing Park. The matter will appear before the Knox County Commission with the idea of the county taking ownership so the parks group can apply for grants and funding.
According to information from Legacy Parks the new county park will create access to the Holston River in a 22-mile stretch of the river. The park seems ideal for fishing and boat entry as the original ferry ramp still exists.
Legacy Parks plans to improve the historic and scenic property with environmental and shoreline protection measures and include interpretive signage, a gathering space and parking.
Remains of the ferry site can still be found along the shoreline on both sides of the river.