Saturday, March 3, 2007
- by John C. Wilson
I was living on the side of Lookout Mountain near Cravens House in the late 1980s when I had the idea for an association that might possibly help reverse the decline of the once-beautiful highway around the foot of the mountain across from Moccasin Bend.
The historic Cummings Highway was getting ugly. And it had no protectors. Though hundreds of people drove the winding road every day, there was no one group looking out for its interests.
Kudzu had about taken over the roadsides in all directions. Gaudy billboards lined the highway. There was talk of a truck garage going in at the former Super Water Slide property.
That threat - real or contrived for commercial purposes - got my attention. In our living room at the old Fred Wallace place, we formed the Lookout Mountain Protection Association. Among those I remember being there were Joan Lockaby and Garvin Colburn and maybe Jon Robere.
The immediate crisis was the Water Slide. It at one time was the site of Joe Light's Big Rock Court. Joe Light had lived at the top of the hill to the right of the property, and he had stone steps built down to the motel. His house had a marvelous view of Moccasin Bend and downtown. I remember when the house was still standing, but it was allowed to rot away. The Big Rock Court itself was a notorius gambling den. A shooting and a police raid had helped bring its demise.
The Big Rock itself towered by the highway with the name emblazoned in large white letters. But a double-decker billboard shut much of it off from view.
The Super Water Slide had been advertised as the longest in the world. It had several seasons of activity. Then it was carted off to a more promising site at Tullahoma.
The Water Slide property then came for sale for a little over $50,000. And it had a commercial zoning. In fact, the zoning along the highway that was the pride of Judge Will Cummings was wide open - ranging from multi-family all the way to manufacturing.
I had heard that a prominent Lookout Mountain philanthropist might be of assistance. At his mountain retreat in North Carolina, he had quietly helped buy up land to preserve the scenic countryside. I was able to reach him at his office and explain the situation. In his raspy voice, he said, "Let's buy it."
He did indeed and kept it in his own name for a few years until transferring it to the LMPA after we had finally secured our tax-exempt status.
The Nixon family had gotten hold of the Light property, including the hilltop view from the old house site. The Nixons put forth a proposal for a quadri-plex atop the hill. Our group opposed the rezoning and prevailed. Eventually, we were able to purchase the property, which stretched back to Old Wauhatchie Pike, from the Nixons.
Across this property and down along the front of the Water Slide was the route of the historic Federal Road. It was the first road through this vicinity - put in by the federal government in 1805 when this was still Cherokee territory. A number of intact sections of this road still remain in this section of Lookout Mountain. The road ran down from the Robert Scholze home down to the present Cummings Highway, then skirted a deep ravine that is to the left of the Water Slide property. It then ran up the hill by the Joe Light house site and on up to Old Wauhatchie Pike. An old rock wall is still intact on the right side just below Old Wauhatchie Pike. The Federal Road followed the current Old Wauhatchie Pike for a short distance, then it veered straight up the mountain up by the property that was owned by Jim Page. The old road can still be seen passing under the trestle on the Guild Trail (the old Broad Gauge Railroad). Just past this point it veered to the right. Robert Cravens, one of the first settlers on the side of the mountain, built a road that started here on up to his Cravens House. It followed the route now known as Lower Cravens Terrace, then up the present Military Road.
We helped to recoup some of the money we paid for the Nixon property by selling a section of the tract on Old Wauhatchie Pike to Alan Sexton, who lived next door at the time.
We then set our sights on an adjacent property to the Nixon overlook. A house had been built here that had even a little better view of Moccasin Bend and downtown than the Joe Light house. A man named Logan lived in Florida, but he came to Lookout Mountain to spend the summers. He stayed at the Sky Harbor Motel and would often walk down Old Wauhatchie Pike. He acquired this lot and built the house. It had burned down prior to the time the LMPA was formed. We reached an agreement with Mr. Logan to buy his lot for $25,000. Peggy Laney had joined our group and she helped us secure the full payment. She did some interior design work for another local philanthropist at his golf course. When she was through, he asked her price and she said it was helping us buy the Logan lot. He smilingly grumbled that was a big price for the design, but he furnished the needed amount.
Further along that section of the highway, we contacted Matthew Dement, who owned another lot with an outstanding view. It was just past the site of the Scenic Adult Motel. Mr. Dement had dreamed of building a home there where another house once stood, but he reached agreement with us to sell.
One of our biggest challenges was the notorious Adult Motel. After much negotiation, we were able to reach agreement on a price with owner Lewis Davis. We had to raise $175,000 to buy it and pay to have it torn down. Lynn Woodworth had joined our group by then, and she is a master fundraiser. We had some major donations, including our Water Slide donor, the Maclellan Foundation, Hamico, Mrs. Ruth Holmberg and many others.
We now had control of an important long swath of Cummings Highway - except for a small lot in the middle owned by the Stevens family. One member in our group had a family member point down toward the lot and say they were going to get a big price for that one day. There was a trailer on the lot, but it caught fire and a vagrant inside was killed. Just this week, Peggy Laney, the current land trust president, was helping to run another vagrant off the lot.
With the property in hand, our group began an effort to eradicate the kudzu. I had not known this was possible, but spraying for several seasons is highly effective. Most of the kudzu is now gone from this part of Cummings Highway.
Our group also began a cleanup up of the hillsides that had long been a dumping ground. Dozens of old tires were lodged among the kudzu vines. A few got away and careened down the hillside and across the highway - thankfully missing the oncoming cars.
We also took aim at the billboards. We learned that many of them were actually on the state right of way and were illegally placed. The state directed that several of the billboards come down, including the double decker in front of the Big Rock. One by one, most of the billboards and small signs along this section of Cummings Highway were removed.
The LMPA found an unlikely ally in a man who was in the billboard business. Jack Steiner, who also operated Ruby Falls, worked with the association in a number of ways. He led in an effort to eliminate a large number of signs at the foot of Lookout Mountain and replace them with directional signs. He took great pride in greatly improving the appearance of the front of Ruby Falls by putting in an attractive waterfall and taking down the powerlines along the highway and putting the lines underground.
Mr. Steiner also began a series of important land donations to the LMPA. The most significant was the old Broad Gauge Railroad bed going all the way up the mountain from St. Elmo. Carl Gibson, another Ruby Falls official, had been able to acquire this scenic route earlier. He envisioned its possible use as a direct route to Ruby Falls. The section given to the land trust begins at the crossing near the foot of Ochs Highway. It continues past the old Whiteside Turnpike, the Incline Railway crossing, the site of the first Incline crossing, the Federal Road crossing and on to Scenic Highway at Ruby Falls. It continues on toward Reflection Riding, then a cutback toward Cravens House. It continues on to near the top of the mountain at the Scenic Highway. There are a couple of trestles along the way, including a high one across the site of the first Incline. Bobby Davenport of the Trust for Public Land found funds to have this trail greatly improved, and the trestles fixed. Many hikers and bikers use it today.
The LMPA was able to buy two pieces of property for a trail head at Ochs Highway.
Mr. Steiner also donated about 65 acres near the foot of the mountain to the LMPA. These were some important tracts that were a great addition to the land already held by the National Park Service. The association eventually was able to donate most of this land to the NPS. This included several tracts along the Guild Trail, including a large one at the junction of Guild Trail and Ochs Highway across from the trail head.
The LMPA became involved in setting up the Old Wauhatchie Greenway. The section of that old road leading to the Sky Harbor Motel was little used with most motorists taking the Cummings Highway below. It had become a gathering place for drug sellers. Hundreds of tires were dumped in isolated sections of the road. The land trust successfully petitioned to have the road closed to vehicular traffic, and there were numerous cleanup days to remove the tires.
Later members of the board decided to change the name to the Lookout Mountain Land Trust.
A fundraising effort was held in recent years to overhaul the park that was set up at the old Water Slide. The parking area was repaved, a picnic shelter area was built, and trails were cleared leading up to the Nixon overlook and the intact section of the Old Federal Road.