History of Chattanooga

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The song that made the city famous may have been "Chattanooga Choo Choo," but the first residents were not train conductors; they were the hunters and gatherers of the Cherokee tribes. As early as 200 BC the Cherokee nation inhabited the area around Lookout Mountain and the Chattanooga Valley and called it Chatanuga, or "rock rising to a point." Creek, Choctaw and Shawnee tribes also inhabited the land, but the overwhelming majority of the population was the Cherokee people.

The Cherokee Nation established a government of tribal laws and clan agreements and maintained its rule for nearly 2000 years. However, in the mid 1600s, the first European explorers began to settle in the area, bringing with them diseases like smallpox that eventually killed over one-half of the Cherokee population. As European explorers gave way to Puritan settlers and eventually a new American nation, Chatanuga became a volatile area. The leaders of the Cherokee Nation decided that the best way to maintain peace was to assimilate themselves into the lifestyle and government of the United States. However, not everyone felt this way and the Cherokee Nation was divided.

Chief Dragging Canoe

As tensions grew between the white men and the Cherokee, one legendary War Chief took matters into his own hands. Chief Dragging Canoe, the fiercest warrior in the history of the Cherokee people, mustered 1200 warriors and traveled south to the North Georgia area known as Chickamawgee (now Chickamauga). There he formed a confederacy of like-minded Cherokee, Choctaw and Creeks. For nearly two decades at the close of the 18th century, this Chickamawgee Confederacy captured and killed thousands of White Men.

As his reputation grew, so did the legends of Dragging Canoe. It was widely believed this fierce warrior had supernatural powers. When he died in combat against John Sevier (who would later become Tennessee's first governor) his body was cut in half and the two pieces buried miles apart to prevent him from raising from the dead. His death did not put an end to the fighting, however, and the Chickamawgee Confederacy continued to wage war against the United States until the early 1800s.

The Trail of Tears

The United States would eventually prevail against Dragging Canoe's warriors and forced the Native Americans from their lands between 1790 and 1820. The well trained and better equipped army of the United States was too powerful for the outnumbered warriors. Throughout the years of bitter battle, the Cherokee Nation attempted to form a peaceful alliance with the United States. John Ross, the founder of the river landing which would later become the city of Chattanooga, was one-eighth Cherokee but fought with the white men against the Creek warriors. His mission was to build a bridge between the United States and the Cherokee nation and forge a lasting peace. Despite his efforts, the government had no interest in peaceful coexistence and forced the Native Americans from their homes. Thousands of Cherokee, Creek, Shawnee and Choctaw Indians died during the long journey between Chatanuga and the newly formed state of Oklahoma. This "Trail of Tears" to the Indian Territories was the darkest moment in the proud history of the Cherokee Nation, and one of the darkest moments in American history.

Battle Above the Clouds

When Tennessee seceded from the United States in 1861 to join the Confederate States of America, Chattanooga became a major strategic position for Southern armies. The city was a gateway to the lower states of the Confederacy and if the northern armies could capture Chattanooga the entire South would be vulnerable. One of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War occurred atop Lookout Mountain--the legendary Battle Above the Clouds.

The distinctive northern point of Lookout Mountain was a lookout site for the Confederate army. From the Point soldiers could view the entire Chattanooga valley making an attack virtually impossible. However, the Point was often covered with low-lying clouds reducing visibility. Union armies took advantage of one such meteorological event on November 24, 1863. Northern armies crept up the mountain under the cover of clouds and engaged the Confederate Soldiers in a tremendous battle. The Rebels were caught off guard and were overrun. The Union armies then flooded into the Chattanooga Valley and captured the city without warning from the Point.

All Aboard the Chattanooga Choo Choo

When General Lee surrendered his Confederate armies to General Grant on April 9, 1865, ending the war, the city of Chattanooga began the long process of reconstruction. Tennessee was the first state to return to the Union and received immediate assistance in rebuilding its cities. Plans were made to reconnect the railways of the former Confederacy to the rest of the United States. Chattanooga was still considered a gateway to the South and it would be instrumental in the railroad project.

On March 5, 1880 the first passenger train arrived in Chattanooga, from Cincinnati, Ohio. A newspaper reporter dubbed the wood-burning locomotive the Chattanooga Choo Choo, and the name stuck. Track 29 led to Chattanooga from every city in the United States and soon Chattanooga was a bustling center of railway activity. It became apparent that a terminal would have to be built to accommodate the needs of railroad companies and their passengers.

On December 1, 1909 several hundred people shivered in the cold as the Chattanooga Terminal opened at 1400 Market Street. The Victorian structure was designed by a New York architect named Don Barber, who won an award for railroad terminal design from the Beaux Art nstitute in Paris, France. The interior was fashioned after the National Park Bank of New York City and was considered the most beautiful structure in the South.

Over three decades later, in 1941, the Glen Miller orchestra performed a song titled "Chattanooga Choo Choo," which would later be featured in the movie "Sun Valley Serenade." The song became a hit around the world and once again the city of Chattanooga was in the headlines.

On August 11, 1970 the last train made its stop at Chattanooga's Terminal Station. The terminal was scheduled for demolition, but the public would not hear of it. A group of investors purchased the property and restored it to its former glory. By 1989 the terminal had become a major tourist attraction with two hotels, a museum and three upscale restaurants. Thousands of visitors tour the terminal each year to get a glimpse of the past and remember the romantic days when railroads connected a young nation, and when a song about a passenger train was sung all over the world.

The Environmental City is Born

Few people realized what a toll all those trains and heavy industry had on the environment surrounding the Chattanooga area. By the 1960s, the smog hanging over the valley was worse than any seen in Los Angeles, and the New York Times called Chattanooga, "The Filthiest City in America." People recall that their clothes would get so dirty just walking from their car into their office they felt as if they needed another shower. Residents of Chattanooga depended heavily on industry and rail service to survive. The pollution, however, threatened their survival.

The city decided it was time to pass initiatives to change the living conditions and restore the once-beautiful landscape. Harsh penalties were enacted on companies that did not control pollution and high emission standards were passed for all motor vehicles. By the early 1970s things were looking better and by 1989 Chattanooga was heralded for its amazing environmental comeback.

Resting on its laurels has never been Chattanooga's style. In the 1990s the city began to build electric buses to further reduce harmful emissions. The idea was a hit and soon cities all over the United States sent representatives to get a look at these zero-emission vehicles. In 1998, Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. declared Chattanooga "The Environmental City" because of its commitment to conserve and protect its natural resources.

Down by the Riverside

As heavy industry was forced out due to environmental constraints, the city looked for new ways to increase revenue. A group of investors believed they could revitalize the riverfront and bring tourists back to the downtown area. The riverfront was an abandoned stretch of 200+ acres on the north side of town. Using public and private funds, River Valley Partners began the task of turning an old shipping yard into a tourist destination. It worked.

Today, the riverfront is home to the Tennessee Aquarium and IMAX 3D Theatre, two attractions that draw millions of visitors each year. Movie cinemas, shops, restaurants, cafes, music venues and museums have opened their doors on the riverfront and drawn suburban dwellers back downtown to live in new luxury apartments and lofts.

Two hundred years ago Chattanooga began as a small landing on the Tennessee River; how fitting that the riverfront is where the city has turned to rebuild its economy and to look the future.