Chester Martin Remembers The Dome Building, Early Radio, The General

Monday, May 9, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Dome Building
Dome Building

The landmark "Dome" Building has long added its distinctive touch to the downtown skyline. Built by Adolph Ochs as a home for his Chattanooga Times newspaper, it dates from 1892. Mr. Ochs (pronounced "Ox") had the seven-story building constructed on higher ground than the downtown area so as to afford great views of Lookout Mountain. It is said that he enjoyed taking clients and visitors to the "dome" atop the building for the impressive vista afforded from there. That was its main purpose beyond providing a fine support for a flagpole. My dad came to work in Chattanooga in 1913 - in time for the election of Woodrow Wilson. Dad got a room in the  Ross Hotel (the building which borders Patten Parkway on the north), very near the Times building.

Radio did not yet exist commercially and there was no means of instantaneous mass communication such as what we have today. Definitely no CNN!  Only  newspaper offices and Western Union were equipped to receive telegraph messages, and so the Times set up a scoreboard on or near the half-rotunda entrance to the building (at Georgia Avenue and East 8th Streets). Thus, they kept the crowds - my father included - out on the street apprised of the election results as they came in. It was a real service to the city of Chattanooga.

Back in the late 1940's the war was over and the radio stations had ever-increasing numbers of young listeners who demanded younger approaches to broadcasting. Musical groups were beginning to start up who could not get their music onto the established stations, (Think of "Elvis" who came along only a few years later) and new avenues were necessarily sought. FM radio was just barely beginning to make its mark, and suddenly there was ONE FM station in Chattanooga: WVUN, 98.1 on the dial, and ---located in the Dome Building. I got an AM-FM radio mainly just to experiment with the FM band. That band was exactly like the Sahara Desert: vast expanses of nothingness with only a very occasional, nearly inaudible "blip" of sound as an oasis. The big flame-thrower, however, was our own WVUN, "with an effective radiated power of 186,000 Watts"! (Only the Mexican stations of the Texas border had so much power!)  And only ONE other FM station braved the Saharan wasteland: WGST in Atlanta. WDOD here in Chattanooga soon got an FM transmitter (at 96.5) and started with about the same amount of power as WVUN. Then the dam broke and FM was all over the place to fill every niche market and give almost anyone of talent the opportunity to be heard. Our WVUN, however, was totally non-commercial, sponsored by the International Ladies Garment Worker's Union (ILGWU). It played Classical "Music for Dining" and always taped the Chattanooga Opera Association's productions for rebroadcast. They "promoted local talent", offering a good variety of it, although no local "boy bands" emerged. Their studios were "state-of-the-art", with all brand-new equipment. When WVUN vacated those premises in the Dome Building a few years later, WDXB took them over. Ed Blair was Program Director for WVUN, and Ed Craig (Craigmiles) was one announcer.

WDXB did many promotions, and contributed one much-loved attraction to the "old" Chattanooga zoo at Warner Park: a male lion named "Dixby". Dixby's name, of course, was derived from the station's call-letters, "DXB". He had a large octagonal cage to himself, well separated from the row-cages of the other animals, and the bars on his domain were about twice the thickness as on all the other cages. He was very popular for many years and lived to a ripe old age. When hungry, his gruff roar could be heard through most of the park. Many readers will remember "Chickamauga Charlie" who was hired originally by WDXB to do a lot of weird, attention-grabbing promotions. I remember him broadcasting one night at the entrance to the Rogers Theater on Market Street dressed in old-fashioned jail clothes - of black and white stripes. An imitation jail-cell stood nearby. No idea what the promo was for - only that he got a lot of attention. I think Charlie later went on to at least one other station.

My dad was still very young when a railroad was put through his rather remote section of northwest Georgia, and it so impressed him that he was an aficionado of the steam locomotive all his life. He would take me over to Union Depot to see the Engine General of Civil War fame. I know of at least two movies made of the "Great Locomotive Chase" between Atlanta and Chattanooga - the later one a Disney film. The wood-burning "General" was given to Chattanooga after the Civil War to be on "permanent display" at Union Depot here. A large bronze plaque made that fact very clear, and so it was with great dismay that our city awoke to the news one morning that the General was missing! Luther, on the radio, was in a dither over it, and people were calling in with conspiracy theories of various types, speculating about its location, and whodunnit! One report came in that some people had discovered black skidmarks on 9th Street (MLK) outside the station and imagined that they had been made by a flatbed truck...but no one seemed to have a clue about what had really happened. Time passed and it was finally revealed that the State of Georgia had made claim to it and wanted it back for a new museum display. And that is where it is to this day - in Kennesaw. Georgia got its hands on the General after it went on a long tour. Mayor Ralph Kelley later briefly corraled it while it was passing through town. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but, unfortunately for Chattanooga, Georgia won.

The group who actually stole the Engine General during the Civil War came to be known as the "Andrews Raiders". They were captured and executed - then buried in our National Cemetery, becoming the very first recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. As you drive in through the entrance to the cemetery off Holtzclaw Avenue you can see ahead of you and to the right, a granite monument with a small, very highly detailed, bronze replica of the General on top. The raiders are buried in a circle around that monument. Mack Sinnett made a black and white version of  the story in the early days of film, and Disney made a color version in the mid 1950's. It is a rather convoluted story that you should read for yourself.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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