Chattanooga, the “Scenic City,” is set along the wide, gentle Tennessee River in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This gracious, former industrial crossroads, which lost a little of its luster in the '70s and '80s, has created a new identity for itself.
‘The Scenic City’ connects as sparkling destination
Bridging its iconic past as the founding place for Coca Cola, and put on the map in 1941 by Glenn Miller and his orchestra singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” city fathers got together a few years ago and plotted a bright future. Today, Chattanooga is called “Gig City,” as it has the fastest internet service in the Western Hemisphere. The world has noticed; the area’s population is on the rise as younger entrepreneur and techies have flooded the city. In a 27-minute video titled “Chattanooga – the High Speed City,” which was broadcast recently by BBC, the city’s changing image was profiled. “Chattanooga’s high-speed, city-wide internet service has helped turn around an aging and dirty industrial town into a high-tech magnet for businesses around the globe,” said the narrator.
Chattanooga implemented the world’s first, community-wide 10 Gig Internet service, hence the name “Gig City,” in September 2010, building an encompassing, fiber-optic network capable of delivering 1-gigabit internet speeds to every home and business in a 600-square-mile area.
Looking back to its past, the area was settled in 1816 when John Ross established Ross's Landing trading post on the river. It was renamed Chattanooga in 1838, derived from a Creek word meaning “rock rising to a point,” for nearby Lookout Mountain. Also in 1838, the U.S. government forced the Cherokees to Oklahoma. This journey, which began in Chattanooga, became known as the “Trail of Tears.” Some 4,000 Cherokees died before reaching Oklahoma.
Chattanooga celebrated the 75th anniversary of its famous song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” two years ago. Originally written by Harry Warren (music) and Mack Gordon (lyrics) on May 7, 1941, by Dec. 7, Glenn Miller’s recording had become the number one song in the U.S. It became the first ever certified “Gold Record.”
In all those years since, Chattanooga has claimed music as a driving cultural force.
As the birthplace of such noted jazz figures as Bessie Smith, Yusef Lateef and Lovie Austin, Chattanooga’s role in the history of jazz cannot be understated. Jazzanooga started in 2011 as a one-day community festival and has become a cultural arts and education nonprofit that offers year-round programming and a month-long celebration that promotes Chattanooga's extraordinary music heritage.
A two-hour cruise on the Southern Belle riverboat at night gave us an opportunity to enjoy watching blue herons dive into the Tennessee River. The boat has lots of window tables, a buffet and cash bar, a nice gift shop, and live music. Lucky visitors get to check out the captain’s command station and blow the whistle. We also got to admire the Walnut Street Bridge, a centerpiece of Chattanooga’s urban renewal. It’s the second longest pedestrian bridge in the U.S.
Although it used to be called “Little Pittsburgh” because of refineries, the city’s sense of team spirit brought about revitalization of downtown, beginning with the Tennessee Aquarium.
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Walnut Street Bridge
Tennessee Valley Railroad
Hunter Museum of American Art
Coolidge Park and the Antique Carousel
Bluff View Art District
Chattanooga Choo Choo
Bob Doak, CEO of the Chattanooga CVB, said, “They landed on the idea of building the Tennessee Aquarium and said ‘Do it big!’ ‘Do it right, or Don’t!’ Now we have the world’s largest freshwater aquarium that connects to residents and tourists. It’s an economic engine and also teaches future stewards to invest a lot in community.”
The aquarium first opened in 1992, the cornerstone of the revitalization of the riverfront. The Chattanooga Riverwalk, a 13-mile riverside path which parallels the Tennessee River from the Chickamauga Dam to downtown Chattanooga, came soon after. It’s open for cyclists, joggers, skaters and walkers and hundreds of tourists and residents alike enjoy it daily.
The city built The Passage, a stairway of water falls and a permanent outdoor exhibit, with symbolism of the seven clans of the Cherokee Nation. There is a “weeping wall” representing the tears shed as the Cherokee were driven from their homes and removed on the Trail of Tears. Seven, 6-foot ceramic disks tell the story of the Cherokee Nation with hundreds of years of Native American habitation in the southeast. Seven, 14-foot tall stainless steel sculptures of stickball players will grace the wall facing the river, educating visitors about the game and its importance to Cherokee culture.
“We built the city for ourselves first – not tourism, but we love our visitors,” said Doak, who traces Chattanooga’s real beginning as a commercial center to the days when the first bottling of Coca Cola happened in the city.
“Before, it was only sold as a fountain drink. Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead, both of Chattanooga, bought bottling rights for $1 in 1899,” Doak said. Of course, the rest of that story is history. Many Chattanooga residents became wealthy through the Coca Cola business. The downtown revitalization effort got a big boost when a now-deceased citizen anonymously gave $25 million to open the aquarium.
The aquarium opened in 1992 and is home to more than 12,000 animals representing almost 800 species. More than 20 million people have visited the facility, which is divided into two major exhibits: the River Journey and the Ocean Journey. It is consistently recognized as one of the country's top public aquariums
Thom Benson, senior marketing and communications manager of the aquarium, said the IMAX Theater was recently renovated with a $2 million facelift. “There are 700,000 visitors a year touring the Tennessee Aquarium. The admission fee is the greatest part of the operating costs, but to add conservation and new exhibits, we rely on corporate support, too.”
Dr. Bernie Kuhajda is an environmental scientist who came here because of Chattanooga’s freshwater critters. “Chattanooga is an epicenter of diversity,” he said. “Our conservation institute is coming soon. It’s being built now. We raise lake sturgeon. These disappeared in 1960-70, but we’re reintroducing them. We work with smaller endangered and threatened species. Brook trout is the only trout native to Tennessee. We’re propagating them and doing experiments. We do a lot of education work for high school kids in Claw Camp. There is a lot going on here.”
We toured the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel and had dinner at The FEED Co. Tavern and Table, which has live bluegrass every Thursday. Annie Still, director of sales for the hotel, reported on the complete renovation of the entire property.
“Originally, this was the Terminal Station. It opened in 1909 and had trains running up to 1970,” Still said. “Everything connected here. Elvis came through here to get to Memphis. The ticket office sign is original. There are two different hotel buildings with 48 rooms that are converted train cars. We do a lot of group business, motor coach tours and retirees. We have indoor and outdoor pools. The lobby floors are original.”
“The architect had been studying in Paris and this was his class project,” Still continued. “The railway put out for bids for a new station and he submitted his class project. The 80-foot dome is the highest free-standing dome of its kind.”
The Rock City tour and lunch was next on our adventure. This tourist spot is family owned and operated, and just celebrated their 85th anniversary. They opened in 1932 and famously advertised on barns and on roadside signs throughout the surrounding area, starting in 1935. More than 425,000 visitors come to enjoy the gardens today.
Located on top of Lookout Mountain, there are pathways through ancient rock formations and gardens of indigenous plants. It is said you can see seven states atop its highest elevation, known as Lover’s Leap, on a clear day.
It was time for an underground adventure! In 1928, a young resident named Leo Lambert discovered an opening in a cave. He crawled for six hours in a small space to reach what would later be named Ruby Falls. The attraction opened two years later in 1930. He brought his wife Ruby to see the falls and named it for her. Ruby Falls is 1,120 feet down, as deep as the Empire State Building is tall. It is America’s tallest underground waterfall and the deepest cave in the U.S. that is accessible.
We began our journey with a 260-foot elevator ride down and then walked along narrow passageways until we could hear the falls. Lots of famous visitors have come to Ruby Falls and Rock City, including Ashton Kutcher, Babe Ruth, Walt Disney and Deidre Hall.
Back downtown, the Hunter Museum of American Art overlooks the Tennessee River. The museum, built on a 90-foot limestone bluff, is comprised of a 1905 classical revival mansion, a 1970s building and a 2005 contemporary structure. The Hunter showcases 100 years of architecture, along with a display of 15-20 percent of their collections. G.T. Hunter (1886-1950) was a wealthy businessman who spent his life promoting Chattanooga. Upon his death, he left money to establish a foundation. His home, now part of the museum, went through many owners and was eventually given to the Chattanooga Art Guild. Signature artists include Thornton Dial, Thomas Cole, Childe Hassam, Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Rauschenberg and Willem de Kooning.
Admission is charged for adults; however, children under age 17 get in free.
Nearby is a thriving artist haven located on the bluffs above the Tennessee River that is filled with restaurants, gardens, museums, cafes and galleries, collectively known as the Bluff View Art District. The whole area is owned by the Potera family.
We watched Mia Kaplan, an artist from New Orleans, install an outdoor art exhibit. There are shops to peruse, restaurants and boutique hotels. Particularly lovely was our dinner at the Back Inn Café. It sits high above the river in an elegant Colonial Revival mansion. The view is stunning. Chef Buck Oglesby, who trained locally, resides here. “We use Mary Potera’s recipe for Italian Cream Cake,” Oglesby said. “We’re open seven days a week, 365. We try our best to shop locally and balance between menu consistency and local ingredients.”
Some of those local ingredients come from area providers, such as cheese from the Sweetwater Valley Farm. “In the late '90s we had a crazy idea to make cheese. Now it’s taking off. It’s primarily a dairy farm,” owner John Harrison said. His daughter Mary Lyndal gives tours.
Diane Ravens owns Appalachian Bee. She produces honey and many products made from honey.
“Everything I do, I am surrounded by honey bees,” said Ravens. “ I pollinate many local crops by renting my bees. I bring them out and they stay two-and-a-half to three weeks. I move my bees at night. Honey is not made year round. They start mid-April and in May the spring flow is done.”
Allan Benton, of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams, said he started out being a guidance counselor and quit because the pay was so low. He decided to get into the ham business and while the first 25 years were a real struggle, providence intervened. He met Chef John Fleer, at the time executive chef of the world famous Blackberry Inn. The chef wanted to develop his menu using Benton’s products and offered to put Benton’s name on his menu. Fleer’s celebrity status also made Benton famous.
Benton’s hams are made the old way and he has resisted all overtures to become commercial.
“I’ve turned down every chain restaurant. We only work with moms and pops. Salt and brown sugar are the only ingredients in our bacon. We really put a lot of care into our products. Many folks shop online. Eighty percent of the product we make leaves on a FedEx truck,” said Benton.
At Mayfield Dairy in Athens, we took a tour hugely popular with tourists. We watched the jugs being made, and then we watched the jugs get filled. Mayfield’s jugs are a bright yellow color and is their trademark. Mayfield buys milk from 160 local farmers and make three million milk cartons per week during the school year.
The Tellico Junction Café is family owned and operated by Steve and Dianne Kinser and their daughter Candi Huckabey.
Diners love the casual environment. Open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, Huckabey said that lunch includes deep fried hot dogs, open face roast beef sandwiches and burgers. She cooks in her grandmother’s pots and pans, using her recipes. Everyone is here by 5 a.m. and just start serving “whenever.” Sunday is their busiest day and they “go as fast as we can go for about 2 hours.”
Outside of town is the Morris Vineyard and Tennessee Mountainview Winery. This family-owned vineyard grows more than 28 varieties of Muscadine grapes as well as other grape varieties, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Enjoy tasting wine in their wine room or ramble outdoors where they offer fruit “U pick em” style. They make jelly out of everything they grow!
The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum goes back to 1961 and was founded by Chattanooga citizens to preserve passenger trains so others can see and feel steam locomotives. Fifty-five years later, the museum is going strong.
This is a hands-on museum where everyone rides the trains. Two kinds of groups come here: Groups that remember what it was like to ride trains and groups that have never ridden a train before and want to know more. Various trips are offered seasonally. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is the largest operating historic railroad in the south.
There’s plenty of space and the seats are comfy for all sizes, with a great train horn! There’s a yard with trains to look at before and after the trip. The waiting room and deli is great to eat there or take on the train, with picnic tables out front.
Chattanooga is the only city in the world to receive the Best Town Ever designation twice. If you’re looking for a great vacation, visit Chattanooga; whether you’ve been here before or you’re planning your first trip, this is the time!