Between 1958 and 1961, I made a daily jaunt up 88 steps to the old Science Hill High School, scarcely noticing the unusual vertical concrete arrowhead to my left near the bottom of “the hill.”
The Daniel Boone Trail Marker, containing a large bronze plate showing the pioneer trailblazer and his dog, stood there from about 1930 to early 1979.
Beginning in 1913 and extending for 25 years, J. Hampton Rich and his North Carolina Boone Trail Highway and Memorial Association erected 358 such markers across America. The organization’s stated mission was “to build a trans-continental highway in honor of Daniel Boone,” placing markers throughout this country, including a few in the regions where the frontiersman was known to have trekked.
Tennessee had nine such units: in Johnson City, Cumberland Gap, Elizabethton, Harrogate, Jonesborough, Kingsport (2), Laurel Bloomery and Mountain City. As a bonus historical gesture, a small piece of metal from the U.S.S. Maine, a Spanish-American War vessel that was raised in 1912 from the floor of Havana Harbor, was added to each relic’s molten mix. In early 1979 during demolition of the old high school, the city’s once treasured artifact abruptly disappeared without a trace.
Recently, I became acquainted with the individual who has possession of the long lost Boone marker. He agreed to an interview, provided I would not disclose his identity: “While they were tearing the school down, I went up there one day to watch. I noticed that the Boone Trail Marker had been knocked over by a front-end loader and had broken into two large crumbling pieces.
“I asked one of the workers if I could have the bronze plate that had separated from it. He said ‘yes.’ I was shocked that the city had no further plans for it. I put it in the trunk of my car, took it home and located it in my basement, where it has resided for 27 years. “I have often wondered what would have become of it had I not saved it. It was another 10 to 15 years before people began wondering what happened to it."
The mysterious gentleman told me that the city’s overall track record for preserving landmarks and artifacts was not favorable, specifically mentioning the Southern Railway Depot, Tennessee Theatre, the Lady of the Fountain and the globes at East Tennessee State University: "“When the university redid their main entrance, those globes ended up in a sinkhole. Fortunately, they were later found and relocated to the Chamber of Commerce building.”
The undisclosed owner considered several options over the years - donating the marker to the new public library, mounting it in a coffee table for use at City Hall and soliciting the assistance of the late Tom Hodge. “I am willing to give it back to the city, provided I have full assurance that it will be placed in a safe location - somewhere like a Winged Deer Park - without worry that it will later be disposed of or sold.”
The possessor hopes that people will respond to this column with carefully thought-out suggestions, which he promises to give serious consideration. Are Johnson Citians interested in reviving the Daniel Boone Trail Marker or will it reside in a cellar for another 27 years? We shall see.