Remembering Signal Mountain's Walter Marr

Monday, October 13, 2008 - by John Shearer

Chattanoogans have enjoyed the automobiles made by the creative Detroit manufacturing engineers for decades, but they also once enjoyed the company of one of these creative minds.

For a number of years, Walter Marr, Buick’s chief engineer, lived on Signal Mountain.

His arrival came after he had climbed his own figurative mountain of success.

Born on Aug. 14, 1865, in Lake Huron, Mich., just days after the Civil War ended, he came from humble origins, In fact, Mr. Marr began working at a young age to help support his family.

He soon became accustomed to both physical and mental hard work.

While working at a sawmill and steamboat engineering company in Saginaw, Mich., he developed an interest in steam engine cars.

About this same time, he married Abbie Farrar. They would have three children: Olive Elizabeth Marr Mathes, Walter Durant Marr, and Sarah Ashelford Marr Hays.

Mr. Marr later became a bicycle manufacturer and was literally on the road to success.

He also continued to look at engine development as a hobby. Around 1898, he produced a four-cylinder gasoline motor wagon.

While doing some of this work, he became acquainted with another neighborhood engine enthusiast by the name of Henry Ford. Mr. Ford would be the first of several automobile pioneers with whom Mr. Marr became well acquainted.

Mr. Marr continued his automobile engine development and soon produced an engine in which the valves were placed in the motor head. Mounting it there helped develop better horsepower, he realized.

This would be a forerunner to the well-known overhead valve engine,

He later helped develop a boat engine for a man named David Buick. Mr. Buick was interested primarily in stationary engines, but his business was sold to a wagon company interested in developing one of the early automobiles.

Mr. Buick never became much of a business success after selling out, but his name lives on with the Buick automobile.

Mr. Marr stayed on with new Buick owner William “Billy” Durant through the early days of the automobile industry and after Mr. Durant helped merge several companies to form General Motors. As a result, he became quite wealthy.

Mr. Marr served as Buick’s chief engineer until 1918 and consulting engineer until 1923.

Although he enjoyed much success in the automobile industry, the stress and strain of his creative work often kept him from enjoying much sleep.

In 1914, while visiting Chattanooga with a Buick zone manager, he spent the night at the Signal Mountain Inn. He reportedly slept better than he had in months.

He later spent a few months there with his family and the next year purchased a cottage near the inn. The cottage was named “It Suits Me,” after the comment his wife made when asked if she wanted to live in Chattanooga permanently.

Mr. Marr’s granddaughter and grandson-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. William B. Close, have lived in the cottage since 1952.

Nearby, Mr. Marr later built a palatial home called Marrcrest. Because of a fire that had occurred at one of his plants in Illinois, he constructed Marrcrest of fireproof materials, including poured concrete and marble floors.

An even larger home had been planned at one time, but a downturn in the automobile industry halted those plans.

As the years passed, he became a popular Signal Mountain resident. He donated the money to build Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, and the chapel was later called Marr Memorial Chapel.

He was also a flying enthusiast, and Marr Field was named in his honor. Located near the south end of Amnicola Highway, it was once the scene of a visit by Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis plane after the noted pilot’s first transatlantic flight in 1927.

Mr. Marr, who soared to amazing heights himself in his work, died on Dec. 11, 1941.

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