Back when C.E. James was looking for a way to transport Chattanoogans up to the mountaintop hotel he had just built on Signal Mountain, the answer must have seemed obvious.
So in 1913 Mr. James – who was, after all, developer of the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railway – created the Chattanooga Traction Company and began building a trolley line intended to ferry passengers from North Chattanooga to his inn.
Now, a century later, Signal Mountain officials are in the throes of deciding whether the last vestiges of the trolley should be removed as part of a sorely-needed repaving of James Boulevard - in which the trolley lines remain embedded.
The reason? Money.
Replacing the road as it currently is designed – complete with rails – would cost about $500,000, Vice Mayor Susan Robertson said. Without the rails, she noted, it would cost about half as much.
Which option would Signal residents, and taxpayers, prefer? By the end of today, council members hope to have an answer to that question.
“The meeting on Thursday, August 29th at 6 p.m. at the Town Hall is a public input meeting re the re-surfacing of James Blvd. as the conclusion of Alexian's latest project, the new nursing care facility, which is anticipated to be completed next April,” Mrs. Robertson said.
“The meeting should be well-attended and lively. Please come!” she added.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation, through its traffic improvement program, will pick up 80 percent of the cost, according to the vice mayor. The town will have to come up with the remaining $100,000 – or $50,000 – depending on which option officials eventually choose.
For a community steeped in, and proud of, its history, the decision won’t come easily. Even the town’s website mentions the trolley and the part it played in helping develop the mountain.
“The Signal Mountain Historic District dates from the early twentieth century to before WWII. Elegant period homes stand side-by-side summer cottages on tree-lined streets. A portion of the old trolley tracks that ferried summer residents up and down the mountain can still be seen on James Boulevard where an original sheltered trolley stop has been preserved,” it explains to residents and visitors looking for “points of interest.”
Even if the rails are removed, many residents believe, neither they – nor their founder – should be forgotten. Toward that end, a number of proposed memorials have been suggested, including this one from Alexian resident Dudley Meadows.
”It would seem that at long last the decision on several questions is at hand. On most of these questions I have no issues, that is unless you ask for an opinion. No, my ultimate concern is with the commemorative use of short lengths of the track,” Mr. Meadows said in a recent email to Signal Council members. “In all of the previous discussions with which I'm familiar, the question of location of a memorial, removed from the roadway proper, has centered on the Mississippi end of the track. I have the impression that land is not available there. This brings me to a proposed settlement of the issue.
“I have the authority to offer an answer to the question that I think you will find more than suitable. MOVE THE MEMORIAL TO THE OTHER END,” Mr. Meadows’ email continued. “On Alexian Village lawn we propose about a 10 x 20 foot pad at ground level, fitted with two 10 foot lengths of track (with a slight curve), plaques describing all aspects of Mr James' creations. This should include the extension of the track to the mines . . . At the other end perhaps a bench. I see this as a point of interest to visitors and tourists. Alexian will be pleased to maintain this memorial like all of our grounds.;
It isn’t just on Signal, though, that the trolley generated interest.A popular postcard depicting "James Point and Trolley Line on Signal Mountain," published by T.H. Payne, was snapped up by numerous tourists and still crops up for sale on Internet websites from time to time.
“On the Boulevard going up Signal Mountain looking towards Chattanooga. The scenery from this Point is particularly beautiful. The mountain can be reached by interurban cars that stop in front of one of the finest Summer Resort Hotels in the South,” it read.
Rail fans also remember.
For example, TrainWeb.com, a site for railroad buffs and historians, features a detailed history of the Chattanooga Traction Company and its Signal Mountain line.
The full text of the TrainWeb.com account follows:
Chattanooga Traction Company
The Chattanooga Traction Company was developed by C.E. James, the developer of the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railway. Originally conceived as a means of transporting patrons of his mountaintop hotel from the valley to the hotel, a second line was built into Red Bank, and a freight business also quickly developed which sustains most of the line today, under Norfolk Southern ownership.
The Company had plans like those of most enterprises of the time, planning to extend lines to a number of far-flung communities in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia. Again, like most companies of its time, their plans never came to fruition, and only two lines were built.
One of these lines went from North Chattanooga to the top of Signal Mountain. The second, the Dry Valley line, was built later to serve the Red Bank community. CTC at the same time built a connection to the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway near the road's bridge over the Tennessee River.
Passenger service was terminated in mid-1934, but freight continued to be moved by electric motors until 1940, when it was decided by the Southern Railway, which had acquired the Company's property in 1936, that the continued operation of those motors was uneconomical. In 1941, the use of the electric motors and overhead lines were discontinued and two small diesel locomotives were acquired, financed in part by the sale of the scrapped copper wires.
Later on that decade, the diesels were replaced by two other locomotives of higher horsepower (one was #4, a 600 HP EMD SW1, the other was #5, a 1200 HP EMD SW9).The next major event in the history of the CTC came in 1969, when the CNO&TP directly absorbed the CTC, along with three other subsidiaries and at the same time the CNO&TP became a direct subsidiary of the Southern Railway. With this change the traction company truly lost its identity, since their locomotives, which were lettered for the Chattanooga Traction Company, were repainted as Southern locomotives, and could only be distinguished by the small letters CT under the locomotive number on the cab sides.
Signal Mountain Line
The Signal Mountain line of the Chattanooga Traction Company was developed to provide transportation between Chattanooga and C.E. James' Signal Mountain Inn, developed on some of the 4,400 acres atop Signal Mountain that the prominent businessman had acquired.
Construction of the line began in 1912 with the awarding of a $100,000 contract for construction of the grade from the Chattanooga Traction Company junction with rails owned by the Chattanooga Railway & Light Company in North Chattanooga to the top of the mountain, ending near Signal Point. The first rails were laid in June of 1913 and by mid-August, rails had been laid to the foot of the mountain and service commenced with cars provided by CR&L, since those ordered by CTC had not been delivered.
By September of the same year, service began to James Point, the top of the mountain, and passengers bound for the Signal Mountain Inn were transferred from streetcar to auto, but by October this was no longer necessary as the line had been completed in its entirety.
Even in the 1910s, rush-hour traffic was around, and CTC did their part to help alleviate the congestion downtown by offering a special non-stop service in the afternoons, dubbed the "Signal Mountain Inn Limited," which provided service from Woodland Avenue in North Chattanooga all the way to Wilder Station atop Signal Mountain. The Signal Mountain line also offered, in the mornings, a special car operating weekday mornings from Newby and Market Streets downtown at 8:20 AM to the Baylor School. This service is cited in a late 1932 timetable of the Company.
Today, while streetcars no longer carry passengers up and down the mountain, the Company's right-of-way now carries US highway 127 up the side of Signal Mountain. The part of the right-of-way from the riverside near US 27 to the Signal Mountain Cement Company, on Suck Creek Road at the foot of the mountain, is still in service and sees regular use. Norfolk Southern trains frequently work the area, with two MP15 diesel locomotives providing power for moving primarily tankcars and covered hoppers to industry along the route.
Like other streetcar lines in the Chattanooga area and across the nation, the Signal Mountain line saw a sharp decline in the number of riders in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As a result of declining ridership, the Traction Company made application to the Tennessee Railroad and Public Utilities Commission, which regulated rail operations within the state much like the Interstate Commerce Commission regulates railroads on the federal level, to discontinue passenger service over the entire line and to abandon the rails from the foot of the mountain to the Inn. On July 4, 1934, the last trolleys ran and were replaced the next day by buses.
Even though streetcars stopped running to the top of Signal Mountain in 1934, some 66 years ago, there is still noticeable evidence of their presence over 21 years. On James Boulevard between Mississippi Avenue and Signal Point Road, the streetcar rails are still in place in the middle of the road, with the original concrete pavement.