WIUM Tristates Public Radio

A View of an Extinct Species

Jun 11, 2014

The Knox County Historical Museum is marking the 100-year anniversary of the passenger pigeon’s disappearance from the planet.

The museum created a special exhibit around what it called a “rare, preserved specimen” of the passenger pigeon. It will be on display through the summer and fall.

The passenger pigeon
Credit Knox County Historical Museum

“It was donated by Gil and Mary Hebard – the same Gil and Mary Hebard that donated money to build this museum,” said Vicky Mundwiler, Knoxville Tourism Associate and employee of the museum.

Mundwiler said “the brutality of man” is what led to the passenger pigeon’s demise.  She said the bird was considered a pest that ate crops and damaged forests. She said they flew in huge flocks that darkened the sky.  It’s estimated there were up to four billion passenger pigeons at the species’ peak in the early 1800s. 

Pigeons were killed through hunting, poisoning, and other means. Mundwiler said conservationists warned the federal government the bird could become extinct, but the government didn’t think that was possible.

“I emphasize that the impossible can happen. And it did happen with the passenger pigeon,” Mundwiler said.

She said the last known passenger pigeon died in captivity September 1, 1914.

The Knox County Historical Museum
Credit Rich Egger

The Knox County Historical Museum is on the north side of the public square in Knoxville. It opened at its current location in 2009. Although the building is new, it was designed to fit in with neighboring historic buildings, including the old Knox County Courthouse.

Mundwiler said the museum features artifacts from every township in Knox County.  In addition, it has an impressive display of antique firearms.

“These are the real thing,” said Mundwiler.  “We have them dating back to 1100 starting with a gun that is called a hand cannon.”

She called it a “priceless collection.”

The museum also displays items related to Abraham Lincoln and his political rival, Stephen Douglas.  Mundwiler said Douglas was the presiding judge in Knox County when Knoxville was the county seat.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, and on Sunday, 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm.

Admission is free. Donations are accepted.