Memorable Chattanooga Country Club Fire Occurred 100 Years Ago

Thursday, January 02, 2014 - by John Shearer
This vintage photograph from the Depression era shows 1915 clubhouse that was built after 1914 fire
This vintage photograph from the Depression era shows 1915 clubhouse that was built after 1914 fire

As 1914 dawned in Chattanooga a century ago, the city was in a collectively optimistic mood.

World War I had not yet begun, and the new Hales Bar dam in Marion County and possibly other hydroelectric generators were boons for local industry.

“The development of the great hydro-electrical power plants has drawn attention to Chattanooga as being the most attractive location for manufacturing plants in the central South,” said the Chattanooga Times in an editorial looking ahead to the new year.

The housing market was also apparently booming.

A real estate salesman named John Evans, whose office was on East 7thStreet, was advertising a lot on Signal Mountain near the hotel for $600, a four-room cottage on Alabama Avenue in St. Elmo for $1,150, a five-room home in East Lake for $2,500 and a six-room house on three lots in the Normal Park area of North Chattanooga for $6,000.

The University of Chattanooga was also expanding to meet the growing city, and board of trustees’ president Capt. Hiram Chamberlain announced plans to build a new gymnasium at the northwest corner of Oak and Baldwin streets. The chairman of the building committee was H.S. Probasco.

The mostly good news in the paper also included a story about the excitement over the discovery of the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru by English and National Geographic Society explorers, as well as a society page recap of all the New Year’s Eve activities in Chattanooga.

Regarding the latter, many Chattanoogans of note took in dinner and dancing at the Hotel Patten, and a masquerade party for young people took place at the home of Judge and Mrs. M.M. Allison on Hillcrest Road in Riverview.

Unfortunately, many Riverview residents likely wore sad and disappointed looks on their real faces just over two days later over an event that took place.

On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 3, 1914, the nearly 7-year-old clubhouse of the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club quickly burned to the ground.

As the Chattanooga Times stated the next day in a long and prominently displayed article, “Within an hour yesterday morning between 7 and 8, fire destroyed the attractive club building of the Chattanooga Golf and Country Club at Riverview. It was a cold, windy and disagreeable morning following a night of rain, sleet and snow.

“Despite the damp, however, the flames devoured the big building and left in their wake but little of its contents.”

The blaze had been discovered shortly after 7 by Ed Slaton, a young man who was going down to the Tennessee River to do some work on the new boat of Coca-Cola bottler J.T. Lupton, a resident of the large Lyndhurst mansion just across from the entrance to the club.

Mr. Slaton notified club steward Fred Green, who lived just north of the clubhouse, and both he and Mr. Green contacted the fire department through a party telephone line.

Mr. Green also notified club professional Paul Andress, who lived in a home next to or adjoining the original clubhouse along Riverview Road above No. 2 tee. He was the golf professional, while his brother, Roy, was the caddy master. They both lived with their mother.

Judge Allison also noticed the fire, and several people descended on the clubhouse area as the blaze was getting started. In a move that would likely not be recommended by fire officials in this day and time, several went in and tried to save items. Among them was Baylor School student and future Coke bottler Cartter Lupton, the son of J.T. Lupton.

Mr. Green was unable to get upstairs, but from the lower part of the clubhouse carried out such items as the cash register, linens, the wine and liquor bottles, some cigars and cigar cases, a number of pieces of furniture, and items from the kitchen. He could not get items out of the safe, but closed it and hoped it would survive the fire.

His wife saved about 150 pieces of silver.

Unfortunately, many of the early 20th century golf clubs and balls in the members’ lockers were lost, although a few were safely secured. Among the clubs brought out in time were those of Wilbur Oakes, the former Chattanooga club pro who was now living in Detroit but who had been visiting South and was keeping some clubs and clothes there.

Judge Allison was able to get his clubs, but little else.

Fire Company No. 6 had responded to the scene but also ended up trying to help with salvage after declaring that bringing the fire under control was hopeless.

Club greenskeeper Otto Graffe told a Chattanooga Times reporter on the scene that he had actually dreamed a few days earlier about the club burning down in exactly the same way it did, and he had passed along his premonition to Mr. Green. He told the reporter that his mother in Germany had told him that dreams someone has just before Christmas come true. Mr. Green verified the previous conversation between the two to the reporter.

A defective chimney was being suggested early on as a possible cause, as a fire had been going in the fancy fireplace the night before, and holes in the chimney rock near the roof where the fire started could be seen the next day. However, club officials thought it had been put out before everyone went home.

While much of the wood and timber of the Swiss chalet-style, porch-adorned clubhouse was gone, some chimneys and limestone walls remained.

The clubhouse had opened in 1907 and, according to the newspaper article written after the fire, had been designed by Chattanooga architect and club member Charles Bearden. Some sources have also credited Atlanta architect W.T. Downing as the designer. It is known that Mr. Bearden worked for Mr. Downing’s office for a period.

The facility was 127 by 46 feet within its footprints and was two and a half stories in height, although the side facing the Riverview homes to the west gave the impression it was only one and a half stories high.

On the ground floor were the lobby, a locker room with 125 lockers, a lounge room, the kitchen and the furnace. On the second floor were the dining room/banquet hall, the serving room, and an old English salon where a nice fireplace was.

On the top half story were a dining room, a ladies’ room, a lobby room, baths and a mezzanine floor.

Among the dignitaries who had visited the clubhouse during its short life were future President Woodrow Wilson, who attended an American Bar Association reception there in 1910, and actress Ethel Barrymore and her husband, Russell G. Colt, of the firearms manufacturing family. Some 50th anniversary Civil War gatherings for veterans had also been held there in 1913.

The fact that no one was injured and that the club was a secondary source of pleasure for Chattanoogans and was not their home, business or even church made the fire not quite so devastating as a destructive blaze usually is, even though it was certainly unfortunate.

This was made evident by the fact that among the hundreds of visitors to the fire site on the day after the blaze were club members jokingly reminiscing about whose wooden golf clubs had been lost.

And at least one or two were thinking it might be good riddance that their clubs were gone, as they had trouble hitting the ball very well with them.

But the membership did seriously look to the future, as this was during a time when recreation and leisure were becoming an even more important part of life in America and Chattanooga.

By noon on the day of the fire, as snow draped the mountains around Chattanooga, officials of the Riverview company that held title to the grounds of the golf club as well as the club officials were each forming a committee that would work together about going forward.

Title-holding company President Walter A. Sadd named Ross Faxon and Judge Allison to serve on his committee, while club president Theodore Montague, Mr. Bearden, and a third person to be named later were to serve on the club committee.

Some were suggesting that Mr. Probasco, who had headed the building committee of the 1907 clubhouse as well as the UC gym, be that third person. However, if he did not choose to serve, some thought his son, S.L. Probasco, the father of Scotty Probasco, might be a good choice.

The early consensus was that the membership of 400 wanted a clubhouse that would be larger than the current one. Where the burned clubhouse sat was considered a likely future site of the new clubhouse, although the equally elevated area where No. 18 tee sat was also mentioned.

The membership would eventually rebuild a larger, Tudor-style clubhouse on the site of the old clubhouse. Designed by Mr. Downing, who was also the architect of Lyndhurst, the structure would open in 1915 and would serve the club adequately for roughly 75 years before being greatly remodeled, enlarged and modernized.

But on that day in early 1914, when so many of the members who had been successful in business were facing a setback to their pleasure hours, the immediate future was the task at hand.

The old clubhouse that dated back to the clubhouse’s founding in 1896 and had also been a theatrical playhouse at the end of the old Riverview trolley line was quickly being updated to serve as a temporary club.

And golf pro Mr. Andress was busy ordering by telegraph new clubs and other equipment, and trying to repair the clubs that were salvageable.

Just as the year was beginning, the then-young golf club of Chattanooga was being forced to make some new beginnings as well.

Jcshearer2@comcast.net

 

This 1980s painting by Wayne Wu shows the look of the Chattanooga Country Club clubhouse before 1914 fire
This 1980s painting by Wayne Wu shows the look of the Chattanooga Country Club clubhouse before 1914 fire

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