Chester Martin Remembers Chattanooga's Bridges

Monday, December 18, 2017

It was fun for a three- or four-year-old boy to ride with his parents down the steep slope of Forest Avenue in the family's Model A Ford. This would have been in the late 1930's, and we would be heading for downtown from our home high up on Elinor Street in North Chattanooga. To cross Frazier Avenue was no problem - probably just a required stop for Forest Avenue traffic, and then straight across to the Walnut Street Bridge. We used that bridge quite regularly back in the '30's until we moved to Brainerd in 1937 - always getting some nice and impressive views of the Tennessee River, the bluffs beneath Bluff View, where the Hunter Museum of American Art stands today.

As a small boy I always wanted to see the Hamilton County jail which held a fascination for me that  only a small boy can explain - and so my dad knew that we simply HAD to pass it on our way into town. There was no turning off before we got to near 6th and Walnut where it was located. The present jail is on the same site, but you cannot see into the new jail like you could the old one. Mind you, it was a straight shot in those days (and for many years yet to come) to drive all the way down Forest Avenue in North Chattanooga, cross the Walnut Street Bridge, and drive directly to the Post Office (now known as the Solomon Federal Building) where my dad worked. The old jail, incidentally, was designed by Clarence T. Jones, builder of the observatory in Brainerd plus many other buildings - some still in daily use. Only the iconic eagle from the old jail still remains on the present jail's property. Jones seemed to like dark-colored brick, so he used it on the outside. There even may have been a second brick color, one step darker.

After moving to Brainerd in 1937 we still had cause to be in North Chattanooga, but, since we were no longer living there, there was less need to use the Walnut Street Bridge. Dad was familiar with the many businesses on Frazier Avenue - the hardware stores, drug stores, etc.,  so to access these most easily he would use the Market Street Bridge with its two ponderous counterweights, needed to assist its opening for very tall amphibious craft - which preseumably might include an occasional Navy vessel, or a river-craft with tall stacks such as the Delta Queen. At any rate, the Market Street Bridge was lower built than the Walnut Street, hence requiring a "draw". The extremely heavy counterweights at either end of that bridge's superstructure provided ready-made space for signage, and so Southern Ad Company's team of sign painters was kept busy with the designing and painting of advertisements for both ends of the bridge. The one company that advertised most on the bridge was the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga. It was not uncommon to find sign-painters working high above the traffic below on their fragile-looking scaffolds - which had no safety-backs!  Ropes, block and  tackle, suspended from "sky-hooks"held the scaffolds aloft while the painters worked away, seeming not to notice the traffic below. In this way they rendered  the EPB's latest message to the public - which always ended with the slogan, "Electricity is Cheap in Chattanooga".

The above two bridges were all we had for years. When I left for the Air Force in early 1956 the Olgiati Bridge was just about to be opened. I can remember that approximate date because my parents wrote me at Lackland AFB that they had driven across it for the first time. It did not really connect with any "through" roads yet, as the wonderful new "Golden Gateway" (the western end of MLK Blvd., then known as 9th Street) would link up with the new re-routing of U.S. Hwy. 27. Finding the approaches to it and actually driving across it made for a a pleasant Sunday afternoon joy-ride at the time causing new excitement through town. No one had ever heard of an I-24, or an I-75, and, except for Department of Transportation employees, few people had any idea of what was about to happen to our city's street and traffic patterns. The new Olgiati Bridge would feed masses of inbound traffic from the north and deposit it on 9th Street. (Martin Luther King - the man - had not yet made his impact in the Civil Rights movement, so that street remained "9th Street" for several years to come). But 9th street was one of the oldest city streets, no wider than 6th, 7th, or 8th, so had to be widened to handle all the anticipated new traffic. That widening presented a veritable trauma for nearly everyone who used the downtown area. All traffic had to be re-routed - not just once, but several times throughout the entire lengthy undertaking - bus routes, truck routes, et al, were constantly being changed. I think the old streetcar lines were gone by this time, or the mess could have been much worse.

Now, my memory totally fails me as to when exactly the bridge over Chickamauga Dam was built. My father-in-law, John Parnell moved his family to Chattanooga in 1952 to work at the new DuPont plant, and that was before the bridge opened. A neighbor of ours in Brainerd, Mr. William F. Jackson, a recent WWII veteran - and steamfitter by trade - was already home from the war and was also working for DuPont at that time. He was forced to drive through town - across the Walnut Street Bridge - and continue his long commute out Hixson Pike to "Uncle Dupy's" (DuPont) new plant. I am guessing then, that the Chickamauga Dam bridge may have opened by around 1954 or '55 - barely ahead of the Olgiati. I still remember Mr. Jackson's cries of jubilation when that bridge actually opened! So the new bridge across Chickamauga Dam opened up a new connection both to DuPont and to Hixson, also making possible the future Northgate Mall. The only negative comments I have for that bridge is purely cosmetic as it detracted from the once-beautiful - even dramatic - approach to Chickamauga dam's Visitors Center. Practicality won out, and I applaud the end results!

The Veterans Bridge was the "Johnny come lately" of all our bridges. It made travel to and from the Hixson area a lot easier which resulted in mass-migrations of Chattanoogans into the Hixson area during the 1960's and '70's. This new bridge worked with the Chickamauga Dam bridge to open the Hixson area up as a part of the Chattanooga metropolitan area. Til now, Hixson had been just a tiny country town relatively cut off from Chattanooga. One effect of the Olgiati Bridge had been to make the Soddy-Daisy and Rhea County areas more accessible to and from Chattanooga, and so the Veterans and Chickamauga Dam bridges now did the same for Hixson and DuPont in a slightly different direction. Only negative comment I can make about the Veterans bridge is that its construction ruined forever the view I will describe later.

I have admired all our bridges, both the new and the old, having walked across both the older ones more than once simply to enjoy the walk - and the amazing panoramas you never see while rushing by in a car. I think it is great that some wise people at City Hall decided to "save" the Walnut Street Bridge, converting it into a pedestrian bridge. Its future actually hung in the balance for a long time, as there was a strong faction demanding it be torn down. WOW, had it ever become a hazard to anyone brave enough to drive across it in their modern cars! Designed for horse-drawn and early Model-T's and Model-A's it was long past its usefulness to the much heavier and larger modern automobiles. It is wonderful, I think, that the supporting pylons of the bridge now provide an excellent place for rock-climbers to gain some supervised practical experience before going scaling at Sunset Rock! We are lucky it is so near Coolidge Park, adding so much to the atmosphere of that good place! Also, I have told my own story in this "Memories" column of how I was among the last people on earth to drive a car across the old bridge:  I had gone to paint on my Chattem mural (at George Little's Art Supply store) one morning, and while working I noticed out the upstairs window that the bridge had been sealed off to all vehicular traffic and marked "Closed". Perfect now for pedestrian traffic of all ages let's forever be glad the Preservationist faction won out!

Then, while I was an art student at the former Kirkman Vocation High School, teacher Stephen A. Harding would allow us to take our sketchbooks to nearby sites to make pencil sketches of anything of interest. Once or twice we went as far as the Market Street Bridge, walking the entire length before deciding on the best spot for sketching. Yes, it was fun, and we probably did not do that much sketching (being Seniors at the time), but I do remember the strong winds blowing from the west and the strange rumble of car tires hitting that steel grid in the middle. It's an entirely different experience when you're on foot and not in your car!.

Only special comments I can make about the Olgiati Bridge are that it was named for Mayor P.R. (Rudy) Olgiati of our city. Mayor Olgiati enjoyed a lot of popularity, I think, and we would hear him on interview programs - both on radio and very early TV. He would always find a way to inform his audience that the "L" in "Olgiati" was never pronounced. He was from Gruetli-Lager, Tennessee, a Swiss community - but part of Switzerland is Italian - and he was one of those. I never knew that the Italians did not pronounce the letter "L", but I will take his word for it, and pronounce the name as "O-giati". (just wanted to forward Mr. Olgiati's message to future generations!) When that bridge was new and people were still raving about it I felt very proud of myself to have met (socially) Mr. Hedman who designed it. He was the father of Chattanooga artist, Joan Hedman, whose work influenced many, including my own!

It was publicized in all Chattanooga media that the new Veterans Bridge would soon ruin what many people considered to be one of Chattanooga's most lovely vistas...from the Hunter Museum of American Art up-river, with a graceful bend beyond. It was indeed a fantastic view - one that a French Impressionist painter would have immediately responded to. One could say that the view was "almost" pristine with very few man-made structures, and when I have visited the Hunter in more recent times I never fail to lament the loss - though I realize that sometimes Practicality must win out.

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