Remembering The Cincinnati Southern Railroad

  • Thursday, March 11, 2004
  • Harmon Jolley
River crossing just below Chickamauga Dam. Click to enlarge.
River crossing just below Chickamauga Dam. Click to enlarge.
photo by Harmon Jolley

Downstream of the Chickamauga Dam is a bridge that allows trains to cross the Tennessee River on trips to and from the north. The “house” atop the bridge at its south end was a matter of curiosity to my wife when she was growing up in Hixson. She and her friends imagined that it must be a place where someone was locked away like Rapunzel. Another possibility that they considered was that a reclusive person lived there, such as Boo Radley in the novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The current railroad bridge with the spooky appearance has been there since 1920. It replaced one that was put into use in 1880 as part of a new rail connection between Chattanooga and Cincinnati.

According to Charles McGuffey in his 1911 book, “The Standard History of Chattanooga,” a railroad linking the two river cities was proposed as early as 1836. McGuffey conjectured that if the rail line had been built that year, the ensuing commerce and communication between the regions would have possibly caused the Civil War to be avoided. Instead, construction of the railroad was not commenced until after the war. By then, rail transit had gained popularity over riverboats. The city of Cincinnati decided to take a bold step, and became the first city to construct and own a railroad. This is similar to the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which was developed by the state of Georgia.

An objective of the Cincinnati Southern project was to provide transportation of raw materials from the South and finished goods from the North. The project engineers had to determine the most suitable route for the railroad. They studied surveys of the rugged terrain in southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee. They also debated where the line should terminate. Both Nashville and Knoxville were considered. Nashville was rejected because of close ties to Cincinnati’s Ohio River rival, Louisville. Knoxville was ruled out due to a lack of existing rail connections. Chattanooga was ultimately chosen because of the thousands of miles of railroad already branching from the city, and because of its strategic location relative to other cities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. When the decision was announced in Chattanooga, its citizens joined in a celebration outside city hall, complete with a display of fireworks and firing of cannons.

Construction of the rail line began in 1873. Convicts built many miles of the railroad, and were housed in stockades along the route. The project took longer than expected due to financial panics in the nation, and plagues of yellow fever. The route of the railroad carried it through Rhea County and into north Hamilton in the valley at the foot of Waldens Ridge. However, as it left the Soddy area, the rail took a fairly rambling route through the North Chickamauga Creek basin and Hixson, and crossed the Tennessee River near the same spot where General Sherman had crossed during the Civil War.

I had often wondered why that the railroad didn’t just continue down the valley through Red Bank, then cross the river and connect with the rail yards in Chattanooga. Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum historian Alan Walker explained that by the time that the Cincinnati Southern made its appearance in the Chattanooga area, the area on both sides of the river in what we call “downtown” had already become too developed to allow a new rail line to enter. Instead, the Cincinnati Southern entered on the northeast side of Chattanooga.
The final spike of the Cincinnati Southern was driven in December, 1879 in Scott County. In March, 1880, the first passenger train on the Cincinnati Southern departed, with a delegation from Chattanooga traveling north to their new sister city. One of the passengers wrote a very detailed account of the journey: “As we plunged into tunnel after tunnel, observed the vast “fills,” crossed numberless bridges, a dawning conception of the great obstacles which had been overcome to make our smoothly gliding ride possible entered the minds of travelers, and then followed respect and admiration for the brain, power, and pluck which had met and conquered such difficulties.” In April, 1880, Chattanooga hosted a group of visitors from Cincinnati, and treated them to tours of Lookout Mountain. With the ceremonial visits concluded, the Cincinnati Southern began a long and profitable relationship with the Chattanooga business community and its citizens.

The parts of a railroad need rebuilding from time to time, just like highways. During World War I, the government assumed control of the railroads under the United States Railroad Administration. A study by that group of the bridge across the Tennessee River founds that it was outdated, and not able to handle safely the weight of newer locomotives and the loads that they carried. In August, 1919, a project was begun to replace the old bridge with a new steel version. According to railroad historian David Steinberg, the traffic on the Cincinnati Southern had to be rerouted on a spur line to Red Bank (then known as “Dry Valley”), and then onto the rails of the Chattanooga Traction Company to North Chattanooga, where a temporary depot was opened. Special arrangements were made to transport passengers on streetcars across the river to catch trains at Terminal Station. By January, 1920, the replacement bridge was ready for trains, and the line was restored to normal operation.

Back to the “house” that fascinated my wife and her childhood friends… it actually houses a control room where an operator can raise the bridge to allow tall boats to pass underneath. We rarely see such vessels on the Tennessee, but the drawbridge must still be tested on a regular basis.

Note to my wife: I don’t believe that I want to live in that little house on the bridge. Even though it would give us a home on the lake with a magnificent view, there are far too many steps to climb to reach it. I also fear that I might sleepwalk some night.

If you have other information on the Cincinnati Southern and its interesting railroad bridge, please send me an e-mail at

Historic Preservation Grant Application Now Accepted
  • 12/4/2023

The Tennessee Historical Commission, the State Historic Preservation Office, is accepting Federal Historic Preservation Fund Grant applications now through Feb. 1, 2024. The grant program ... more

Cleveland Museum Receives $50,000 Grant
  • 12/4/2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Rep. Kevin Raper , R-Cleveland, today announced a $50,000 grant to the Museum and Cultural Center at 5ive Points. The funds are part of a larger $5 million appropriation ... more

Christmastime - December 1863 Programs Set For Dec. 16
  • 11/30/2023

The Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park will present 30-minute programs at the Snodgrass House (Tour Stop 8) on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 ... more