Situated where natural corridors provide passageways through surrounding mountains, Chattanooga has long been a gateway to travelers. Prior to I-24 and I-75, traffic moved through town on the “U.S. routes” of 11, 27, 41, 64, and 72. Can we today picture Cummings Highway and Ringgold Road handling all traffic between Nashville and Atlanta? As the number of cars and trucks increased, the city’s major highways were overburdened. When U.S. 27 was the north-south route, the Market Street Bridge was in gridlock so often that an adjacent temporary pontoon bridge was considered until the Cedar Street (later, Olgiati) Bridge could be built. A national plan of freeways had been proposed by Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s, but lack of funding and World War II stalled the program.
The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, promoted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Tennessee Senator Albert Gore, Sr., paved the way for the Interstate Highway System still in use today. President Eisenhower had long been interested in better highways. He experienced numerous travel hazards as part of the U.S. Army’s first motor convoy on the Washington, D.C. to San Francisco in 1919. He had seen the advantages of Germany’s autobahn during World War II. Locally, Chattanooga’s Mayor Rudy Olgiati had experience in public works through military service, and a vision of how the area’s transportation could be improved. In May, 1955, a year before the Interstate Highway System was authorized, Mayor Olgiati and other city leaders had been discussing a freeway plan for Chattanooga. Their ideas were soon folded into the Interstate plan, guaranteeing that the highways would pass through Chattanooga.
To carry traffic through Missionary Ridge, the original freeway design included a new tunnel through the ridge, joining the list of the Missionary Ridge railroad tunnel (opened in the 1850’s), McCallie Avenue tunnel (1913), Bachman Tubes (1929), and Wilcox Tunnel (1931). The east-west freeway was to be located along the southern border of the city near 38th Street, and then continue around Lookout Mountain. However, a change announced in August, 1955 moved the freeway’s location to 23rd Street. A tunnel through the ridge remained a part of the plans until November, 1960, when it was announced that a 120-foot deep, 850-feet wide cut would be made in the ridge near Sioux Trail, Main Street, and Crest Road. With modern earthmoving equipment and techniques, creating a mini-canyon in the ridge was estimated to be less expensive than a tunnel.
Opposition was quickly voiced by residents and local history students (who were also opposing the excavation of Cameron Hill that was occurring in 1960). Col. Charles S. Dunn, superintendent of the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, argued that the cut “would break our chain of interpretation” along Missionary Ridge, and would symbolically “cut Gen. Bragg off from his troops.” Residents were concerned about the blasting required to make the excavation, and the loss of homes which were in the area of the project. The opposition did not change the ridge cut decision. However, in order to allow the Missionary Ridge residents to have some continuity of their neighborhood, two bridges were included to provide north-south links of Crest Road and Seminole Drive.
The project faced a second hurdle from another source: the City Water Company, which had a reservoir in the pathway of the ridge cut. The company felt that the state should fund the cost of the relocation of the reservoir. A settlement was reached in March, 1964, with the highway department agreeing to pay $475,000 to the City Water Company.
After more than five years of planning and construction costing $5,400,000, the ridge cut was dedicated and opened to travelers on December 1, 1965. Those who had many years earlier attended ceremonies for the ridge tunnels were honored guests at the dedication event. In a speech to those gathered, Governor Frank Clement said, “We are here to dedicate a gateway. The opening of I-24 in Chattanooga will make this the true gateway to Florida… Traffic feeding from I-65 to I-40 at Nashville and connecting with I-75 here in Chattanooga will bring an unending stream of travelers from the heartland of America - from Cincinnati and Chicago and all the Midwest…”
If you have memories of the ridge cut debate and construction, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.