Mark Herndon: A Nostalgic Visit To The Old U.S. Pipe Plant

Saturday, January 11, 2014 - by Mark Herndon

Just a few days into the New Year, it was already the coldest morning of 2014 this week with temperatures in single digits as the Arctic blast blew through the Tennessee River Valley.  However, it did not delay a scheduled meeting in South Chattanooga with engineers on the historic U.S. Pipe complex.  Several days prior local engineers requested a meeting to look at a sewer line issue buried deep near the former U.S. Pipe Foundry plant off Chestnut Street 

The complex always intrigued me as I would observe the operation for years from the highway traveling into Chattanooga.

Actually for years, it was one of the first things you would notice driving into the city from Nashville. It was earlier known as United States Cast Iron Pipe and Foundry Company, later dropping the name “Cast Iron”.  The Chattanooga plant, built in 1882, was part of a consolidation of 12 plants in eight states, according to historical records.  

David Giles built the Chattanooga plant. This facility was the South's first pressure pipe shop to use the pit cast method. Although the plant began operating with one pit, by the time of consolidation, pipe was being produced in eight pits. Some years after it became a part of U.S. Pipe, the manufacture of pipe was discontinued and the plant converted to the production of cast iron fittings, and later added valves and hydrants.

This site holds some importance to me besides the part of my morning meeting at the 141 acres with the old skeleton building that still remains as a reminder of one of the largest employers in its day and bearer of significant air pollution of the Chattanooga area more recognized in the 60’s and 70’s. The site is documented as playing an important part of my family and many others who had parents, grandparents other family members and friends who earned a living working there during a century of its operation.

After the engineers meeting and everyone taking warmth back to their respective vehicles, I decided to walk over to the gate keeper, just to see if he would allow a few minutes for me to take a few pictures.  Keep in mind it was below freezing, wind chill in the negative digits.  He said sure, take your time.  I  drove the length of the building and hurriedly took photos. I took two steps inside the hull of the building for a couple of quick photos and then, looking up into the blue cloudless sky, it was hard not to ignore the beauty of Lookout Mountain with that unmistakable profile.

This place took on a special meaning to me when several months ago I was going through some family pictures, including many dating into the 50’s.  Since I was eight years old, I have learned to hold a camera steady, point and shoot.  Photographs of family, Chattanooga’s history, surroundings and past travels hold my interest.  

I drove along the complex, trying not to take up a lot of borrowed time the gate keeper provided on this occasion. I surveyed the area and pulled out of my pocket one photograph.  This photograph tied my family to this place.  It was a 1957, black and white photo of my grandfather, H.M. Dodd, and a co-worker.  A photo of more than 50 years old, taken at or near the very place I stood….. I cannot say that I observed the very spot the photo was taken and maybe someone familiar with the site could point it out quickly. But, nevertheless, it was here at U.S. Pipe my grandfather was employed.  He retired a few years later in the early 60’s.  I have always been intrigued with old building, architecture, engineering/design and, as a geologist, the foundation pinning the structures to the subsurface geology.

I don’t know the details, what responsibilities my grandfather held at the plant, who took the picture, why it was taken and who was with my grandfather in the photo.  I really don’t remember how I got this photo years ago.  I have often wonder if more photos were available somewhere.   At the moment, I was holding it and looking around at some of the railroad track system still visible. I felt a brief connection being there. In my mind I could see the workers, the hot molten vats, everyone busy, working hard, the black smoke billowing from the stacks, the extreme heat inside the building…. all familiar as a young boy who use to visit my other grandfather, J.M. Herndon (electrician). Christmas dinner was held at the plant in the early 60’s as he worked at the Combustion plant. The two plants were just part of the blue collar work force with hands-on rebuilding America.

It really hasn’t been that many years since the plant operations ceased and the site facility clean up began.  I read recently that the property is in a plan for redevelopment.  One development company, Perimeter Properties, best describes it as follows;

"The US Pipe/ Wheland Foundry master plan is a vision plan for the reuse of a 141-acre industrial site in Chattanooga based on sustainable development principles. The plan outlines a mixed-use development based on current commercial and residential market studies, and establishes an urban design framework of development blocks, streets, parking, and open space. The mix of uses is flexible within that framework to respond to future market conditions and demand.

"The complex is located midway along the Tennessee River between the two most visited attractions in Chattanooga, the Downtown Aquarium and Lookout Mountain, the development will become an anchor for the revitalization of south Chattanooga and a new gateway to the city. In February, 2008, cleanup of the U.S. Pipe site is well under- way, and environmental clearances have already been secured for the Wheland site. A significant investment in on-site storm water infrastructure is already in place. The next step will be to attract private developers and to secure public investment that will affirm and implement the bold vision for the U.S. Pipe/Wheland sites. The property owners already have conceptual renditions available to visualize the future development of the property."

As I snapped away with my camera, braving the bone-chilling cold and keeping the gate keeper waiting, I often wonder after almost 60 years later looking at the photo once again, what would my grandfather think of the growth and beauty of Chattanooga today. 

Mark A Herndon, CPG (m.a.herndon@comcast.net)

Professional Photographer

 



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