A General Question about Former Chattanooga City Seal

Friday, October 26, 2012 - by Harmon Jolley
City seal shown on 1916 letterhead of Mayor Jesse M. Littleton
City seal shown on 1916 letterhead of Mayor Jesse M. Littleton

Chattanooga has a long association with trains.  The terrain dictated that trains would have to pass through the city, which led to Chattanooga’s growth.  The rail infrastructure encouraged local manufacturing.  Many passengers from distant places were given many chances to see what Chattanooga had to offer.  Some came back to stay.

By 1975, however, Chattanoogans and their elected leaders may have wanted a make-over for the city’s image.

  In an age of freeways, jets and spaceships, trains were associated with bygone times. 

Passenger train service had been discontinued locally.  Though there had been efforts to preserve it as a history museum and open-air market, Union Station and its train shed had been demolished.  A railroad relocation program had resulted in fewer trains crossing busy streets.

Then, there was the loss of that historic Civil War locomotive, the General, which had been so disappointing to Chattanoogans.  The General had been displayed at Union Station since 1901, and became deeply associated with the city. 

However, in the 1960’s, the L&N Railroad announced that the General would be given to Georgia.  The state had owned interests in railroads and property in Chattanooga since before the Civil War. 

Mayor Ralph Kelley and other leaders contested the action of L&N, both by taking possession of the General and fighting its removal in court.  The case ultimately was heard by the United States Supreme Court, which in November, 1971 upheld a lower court ruling that gave the General to Georgia. 

I had the opportunity to hear Judge Ralph Kelley address the Chattanooga Area Historical Association about the General a few years before his passing in 2004.  It was insightful to hear of his tense conversation with Governor Lester Maddox after the General had been intercepted by “Kelley’s Raiders.”  Gov. Maddox was irate that news media were arriving in Kennesaw for the unveiling, yet the locomotive wouldn’t be there.

Judge Kelley recalled the difficult question that confronted him after learning of L&N’s plans.  He pondered what he was going to do with boxes and boxes of official letterhead, business cards, coffee mugs, tie clasps, and other items that depicted the General.

At the time, the city’s official government seal was based on that famous locomotive.  Local drivers saw the General each day, since the city sticker on the windshield contained the city seal.  Losing the locomotive meant that the city seal featured an obsolete image.

In the summer of 1974, Mayor Robert Kirk Walker suggested a public contest to design a new corporate seal.  On February 11, 1975, the Chattanooga News-Free Press reported that George Little, a prolific illustrator of Chattanooga’s scenery, won the first-place prize of $500.  The new city seal featured a view of the city from Point Park.

After researching the previous city seal, however, I am uncertain that the General was actually the locomotive that the artist had in mind.

The Public Library has a clipping on files from the “Revised Ordinances and Code of the City of Chattanooga.”  The document was printed in 1892 by the Times Printing Company.  Note that the year is prior to 1901, when the General was first displayed at Union Station.

Section 485 of Chapter XLII, Sundry Regulations, said, “A seal is hereby adopted as the official seal of the city of Chattanooga – the said seal being circular, being in circular form around the outer portion of the words, “Corporation of the City of Chattanooga,” and in the center the figure of a locomotive engine, with pilot at the right.  And it shall be unlawful for any person to use another seal as the corporate seal of the city of Chattanooga.”

Note that the General is not named in that section.

It is possible that there was a later ordinance to amend this ordinance that specifically described the locomotive as being the General.  I grew up hearing that it was the General on the city sticker that was in front of me when I rode in the front seat of my parents’ cars. 

If you have information on the former city seal and whether the locomotive was ever officially named as being the General, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

By the way, Section 486 made it a misdemeanor to keep or maintain any jackass or stallion within the corporate limits.  Section 487 deemed it a nuisance to let dogs run at large between June 1 and October 1.

Current city seal of Chattanooga was designed by George Little, and shows a view of the city from Point Park on Lookout Mountain.
Current city seal of Chattanooga was designed by George Little, and shows a view of the city from Point Park on Lookout Mountain.

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