Renée S. Gordon
“Can you afford to board the Chattanooga Choo Choo? I’ve got my fare, and just a trifle to spare.”
–Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
Native Americans discovered the beauty and bounty of the land located in the midst of the Appalachian Mountains, where the Tennessee River bends as it flows south, more than 8,000 years ago. By the mid-16th Century, when Europeans first entered the region, it had been the focal point of Mississippian culture for more than 200 years. The Cherokee, who controlled the area around Lookout Mountain in the 1700s, referred to the land as “Chado-na-ugsa,” the “rock that comes to a point.”
Ross Landing, the first European settlement and trading post, was founded in the 1830s and was officially named Chattanooga in 1838, the same year the relocation of the Cherokee began. Chattanooga rapidly established itself as a portal to the Deep South and with the coming of the Western and Atlantic Railroad in 1850 the town’s destiny was set. Eleven years later Chattanooga would, unlike other eastern Tennessee towns, vote for secession.
By 1861 the city was an important supply and transportation center considered vital to the South. The Union launched the Chattanooga Campaign in October of 1863 and the city was under Federal control by November. In 1864 Sherman based his command in Chattanooga as he planned his march to the sea.
Modern Chattanooga has been designated one of the America’s best destinations by both National Geographic Traveler and Southern Living Magazine. The city has four Civil War battle sites, a number of totally unique attractions, a free Downtown electric shuttle, and a multitude of dining, shopping and extreme adventure options.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel, a registered Historic Hotel of America, is an excellent choice of accommodations. The Beaux Arts Terminal Station was slated for demolition but was saved and opened as a hotel and 24-acre vacation complex in 1973 and in 1989 it underwent a $4-million renovation. The lobby boasts the 85-ft. largest freestanding brick dome in the US and guests can choose from standard rooms or climb aboard one of 48 antique sleeping parlors outfitted with all the amenities. Dining options are equally exciting. You can dine in an authentic Victorian railcar or eat in the Station House Restaurant, the former baggage area, where the servers serenade you. A full service spa, shopping arcade, trolley ride, Model Railroad Museum, formal gardens and convention center are on the grounds. Packages and specials are available year round. (1-800-TRACK29) www.choochoo.com
Six glass peaks pierce the skyline as part of the architecture of the Tennessee Aquarium and IMAX 3D Theater. It opened in 1992 and has grown since that time into the largest freshwater aquarium in the world and the only one with a Beluga sturgeon on display. The Aquarium’s signature exhibit follows the path of a single raindrop from the Appalachians to the Gulf of Mexico. Highlights of this amazing facility are three walk-thru forests, a gallery on the rivers of Africa, a pop-up piranha tank, underwater caverns and, my favorites, video screens at the eye-level of a small child. The entire facility is handicap accessible. This is a real treat!
Your adventure continues with a two hour ride aboard the 70 passenger River Gorge Explorer. Tours are narrated by an Aquarium naturalist and explore the 26-mile long gorge, Tennessee’s Grand Canyon, and learn the history of the area. www.tnaqua.org
Child Magazine has rated the Creative Discovery Museum as one of the top children’s museums in the country and I concur. It is completely interactive and children have an opportunity to pilot a riverboat, dig for fossils and have fun with simple machines. In addition to those exhibits the museum has an outstanding emphasis on the arts in Arts Alley.
This area is entered through a corridor of huge instruments that, when buttons are pushed, play a song in isolation or as a band. The interior galleries house a recording studio, an art studio, theater and rooms dedicated to individual instruments. The museum is on two levels with a garden, beehives and a viewpont on the top floor. Signs are bilingual and exhibits encourage participation by children with disabilities. www.cdmfun.org
You have to love the International Towing & Recovery Museum and Hall of Fame. The museum honors the men and women of the industry through displays of historic vehicles, artifacts and memorabilia. On the exterior there is a monumental statue of a driver rescuing a mother and child from the water. It is fronted by the “Wall of the Fallen,” a list of names of those who have given their lives. Not to be missed on the tour are the first tow truck created in 1916 and a Holmes W-45 Military Wrecker used in France after the invasion. These militarywreckers were only manufactured from 1941-49. www.internationaltowingmuseum.org
The Bluff View Arts District is a great Chattanooga destination choice. Situated atop the Tennessee River’s bluffs it is historic area reminiscent of neighborhoods in Europe. The streets are filled with eclectic shops, trendy restaurants, unique galleries and arresting outdoor artworks. Brochures for self-guided tours are available. www.bluffviewartdistrict.com
Bessie Smith was born in Blue Goose Hollow, a black section of Chattanooga, in 1894. At age 9 she began her career singing on 9th Street accompanied by her brother Clarence. She would go on to fame as the “Empress of the Blues.” The Bessie Smith Cultural Center; Museum and Performance Space is named in her honor.
The center’s museum relates the city’s African American history through an orientation film, photographs, dioramas and informational panels. Of particular interest are newspaper articles regarding the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, information on the lives of Bessie Smith, Usher and Mark Thrash. Thrash accompanied his owner to Chickamauga where his owner was killed. Thrash came home to report the death to the family and then returned to become the battlefield’s first. www.bessiesmithcc.org
Two other renowned black Chattanoogans must be mentioned, Roland Hayes and Mary Walker. Hayes, one of the greatest tenors of his era, was the first African American to sing at Carnegie Hall. His historic marker is at 715 E. 8th Street.
Mary Walker was the last former enslaved person to die. She was given a Bible when she was emancipated at 15 and carried it throughout the years claiming it comforted her. She learned to read when she was over 100-years old. No marker indicates her passing in 1969.
Lookout Mountain, rising majestically above Chattanooga, is a 90-mile ridge that extends south through TN, Georgia and Alabama. A mere 6-miles from the city it is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts and there is literally something for every age and ability level. www.lookoutmountain.com
The Lookout Mountain Incline Railway is the world’s steepest passenger railway. It makes the ascent in 15 minutes, at a rate of 600-ft. per minute with grades as steep as 72.7%. Cars are custom designed with astrodome roofs. The view from the top will leave you breathless. www.ridetheincline.com
Rock City is 1700-ft. above sea level and the view takes in 7 states. Nineteen adventure areas include both natural and man-made wonders that give visitors a chance to pass through the Needle’s Eye, tour Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village, climb a rock wall or just gaze in awe from Lover’s Leap. www.seerockcity.com
Lookout Mountain Cave has a long and storied history. It was used by Native Americans, Civil War soldiers and, after being sealed, was reopened to the public by Leo Lambert in the 1930s. The cave extends 2,200-ft. into the mountain and is 1,120-ft. underground. Tours begin with a 260-ft. elevator descent to the floor of the cave and an easy 1-mile walk takes you pass numerous formations and ends at the stunning 145-ft. high Ruby Falls. This underground waterfall is illuminated and a path allows you to circle the entire waterfall. www.rubyfalls.com
Lookout Mountain Hang Flight Park is the largest hang gliding school in the country. An instructional session is given prior to flight and participants as young as four can fly tandem and experience the thrill of flight. An instructional session is given prior to flight. www.hanglide.com
No trip to Chattanooga is complete without a ride aboard the South’s largest operating historic railroad and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) has a number of trips from which to choose. The Missionary Ridge Local, a 55-minute, 6-mile ride, runs daily March to October and provides scenic views, narration, a visit to a restoration facility and a chance to watch the engineer turn the train on an 80-ton, 80-ft. long turntable. The ride takes you through a pre-Civil War tunnel and pass movie locations used in “Water for Elephants” and “Leatherheads.” www.tvrail.com
Chattanooga is totally unique and very affordable. Information, suggestions and discounts are available online. Take the Chattanooga Choo Choo for the time of your life. www.chattanoogafun.com
I wish you smooth and surprising travels!