With Chattanooga getting service from five railroad lines by the early 1880s, several investors began studying the idea of an inter-urban railroad line that would carry freight between the main railroads and perhaps haul some passengers as well.
As was usually the case, the enterprising Charles E. James was ahead of the pack. He launched plans for the Chattanooga Union Railway Company in 1883 and had workmen starting to build it by April of the following year.
By early 1885, the city was almost circled by the new venture that was better known as the Belt Line. The only obstacle stopping James from making a complete loop on the 17-mile route was the steep Bluff View section rising up near the Ross's Landing wharf. James then carried out several extensions to areas that were under development or to areas that he speculated were about to be developed and were fertile ground.
Initially, the Belt Line was in use for hauling freight. But just before the Boom days of the late 1880s, passenger service was added to the Belt Line. Special excursions hauled potential land buyers to new suburbs like Highland Park.
The Belt Line at first flourished, but it could not keep up with new competition from the electric streetcar, which had more direct routes and more frequent service. The Belt Line was sold at auction in 1894 and it became the property of the Southern Railway.
Quite a bit of the Belt Line is still intact today. And there is a limited amount of freight service on some of its track. The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum also sometimes makes use of Belt Line track for its excursions.
One of the earliest sections of the Belt Line focused on the manufacturing district known as "Tannery Flats" on the back side of Cameron Hill.
The line at that time went as far as the Loomis and Hart furniture plant, which is not far from today's Tennessee Aquarium.
That branch of the Belt Line stayed close to the river before veering straight east toward the Nashville main line near Chestnut Street. This line was just south of Main Street.
Another branch ran closer to the foot of Cameron Hill through the heart of the Tannery Flats industries. It headed in the direction of St. Elmo toward the U.S. Pipe plant.
There is no longer any Belt Line track in the vicinity of Ross's Landing. It can first be picked up at a crossing on Riverfront Parkway just south of Main Street. There are still large crossing arms in place, but the track has been taken up on either side.
However, just a short distance away, the track remains in place that headed to the Ross-Mehan plant (now Eureka Foundry). It goes under the freeway and then curves into the old foundry. But the track was taken up at the site of the parking lot for Finley Stadium.
Another section of the Belt Line curves from under the freeway near Eureka Foundry and goes by the state vehicle inspection station. It then crosses Riverfront Parkway before heading for an industrial area. It goes through the property of Siskin Steel and PSC Metals.
A former Union Pacific rail car rests along the track in this section.
The freeway from Nashville was built over the Belt Line track that heads for U.S. Pipe and on to the Wheland Foundry site.
At the entrance to Siskin Steel and PSC Metals by Riverfront Parkway, the section of the Belt Line that went closer to the river juts off into the Alstom (formerly Combustion Engineering) property.