Remembering the Miller Brothers Subway

Tuesday, December 27, 2011 - by Harmon Jolley
Diagram shows how the subway connected the two Miller Brothers buildings.  Click to enlarge.
Diagram shows how the subway connected the two Miller Brothers buildings. Click to enlarge.

On December 15, the Chattanoogan.com reported that Blue Cross Blue Shield has sold their office building which once housed the Miller Brothers Department Store The article stated the following, “The Miller Brothers Department Store building was built in the late 19th century and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. The building is said to have Chattanooga’s only subway, an underground shopping area that tunneled beneath Broad Street.”

A subway in Chattanooga? That’s correct, though not a subway that is an underground passenger railway. This one is a subterranean passageway that once allowed shoppers to walk between the Broad Street and Market Street buildings of Miller Brothers. “Walk” or “Don’t Walk” no longer was a time of great decision.

The Sunday, March 4, 1951 Chattanooga Times reported that the new Miller Brothers subway would open the following day. George Blackwell-Smith, secretary-treasurer of the retailer, said, “Our customers may drive their automobiles into the Broad Street Garage for parking, enter our recently opened complete Home Furnishings Center and shop there or pass directly through the subway with its attractive shops into the main department store for their purchases.”

Broad Street had to be closed to traffic during construction of the reinforced concrete walls of the subway. Dimensions of the walkway were 130 feet in length, 19 feet in width, and 7.6 feet high. Acoustical tile ceilings concealed the concrete roof, which had the layers of Broad Street immediately above it. Shops selling everything from fishing tackle to pots and pans lined the subway.

The retailer’s history in Chattanooga dates to 1889, when brothers Gus and Frank Miller opened the New York Racket Store at 510 Market Street in the former W.B. Barnes Saloon. After an 1897 fire destroyed the Richardson Building, the Miller brothers built a new store at Seventh and Market streets.

Miller Brothers carried the finest fashions and home décor, and sponsored events in keeping with their image. In 1967, they hosted a “Hail, Britannia” collection, which included replicas of English jewelry and china. Representatives from Great Britain attended the gala. Miller Brothers was already known for its tea room, so the Britannia event was natural.

My elementary school made a field trip to Miller Brothers in order to be exposed to British culture beyond the Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, and Rolling Stones. In those years, I’m not sure that the Chattanooga City Schools had their own school buses. Instead, we relied on parent volunteers to transport students.

I recall that we parked in the Miller Brothers parking deck, and then walked as a group through the subway. Many were amazed that we were walking below the heavily-traveled Broad Street. That transportation experience was soon rivaled by trips on the escalators inside Miller Brothers.

The downtown Miller’s store closed in 1986, the same year that Hess Department Store acquired Miller’s.. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee had offices in the building until relocating to the new campus atop Cameron Hill.

If you have memories of Miller Brothers, particularly its subway, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

Miller Brothers shopping bag.  Click to enlearge.
Miller Brothers shopping bag. Click to enlearge.

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