Chester Martin Remembers The Charm Of Lookout Mountain

Wednesday, December 23, 2015 - by Chester Martin
Estelle Rockwood house, which burned around 1960, was on a perch with a grand view of the city
Estelle Rockwood house, which burned around 1960, was on a perch with a grand view of the city

During my high school years I was lucky to have friends who lived on the side of Lookout Mountain. They lived in a really beautiful apartment that had at least a "trace" of a view. It was about a 10-minute walk downhill to the St.Elmo bus line from their building on Lower Cravens Terrace.

It was an ideal place to park your car and take a walk in any direction, as something worthy of seeing could always be found. The arrangement of narrow streets and roads there always made me think of the quaint country lanes of New England or perhaps Martha's Vineyard. Everything had this "quaint" aspect - the houses and gardens, and even the steep hill of the mountainside contributed to this same "feel." At their home one beautiful, cold winter's day someone brought an armload of "hedge apples" to their house - a large canteloupe-sized, but green in color, fruit of some inedible sort which had the sweetest smell of any plant I had ever seen.

It was also the first I had ever seen of these, and it was from nearby. They are still rare in my world. The pungently sweet aroma added a sort of festive character to the room.

On Scenic Highway, where Lower Cravens Terrace became Upper Cravens Terrace, there was a small, unpretentious hand-lettered sign which had hung there for years announcing that a "Seamstress" lived in the first house only steps away, and an arrow pointed toward it. This seamstress was a Ms. Estelle Rockwood, a very friendly elderly lady who lived there all alone. She loved to tell about how her father had built the rustic house not too many years after the Civil War, and how it was constructed directly over a Confederate "breastworks" (supply line) which ran straight up the mountain from St.Elmo below. Her house was really charming and fit no particular style except what her father liked. It was of wooden clapboards which had weathered dark through the years, with mountain stone chimney and fireplace. Very shady in summer, it always seemed cool and comfortable - especially with the wide porch which extended around two sides. At the edge of this porch she kept a collection of Civil War relics her father had unearthed while building the house, including some large, un-exploded shells. A fine, stone well also was on the west side of the house behind a garden gate, with the coldest water you ever want to drink!

While excavating the hilly terrain to create paths and gardens, far away, and downhill from the house and well, her father would occasionally dig into a Civil War burial - and so he left that spot alone, marking it with a boxwood plant. There were quite a number of these boxwoods when I was there in the 1940s, and they had grown quite tall.

Estelle Rockwood lived a long life and left her house to my friends from Lower Cravens Terrace. They removed all the Civil War explosives and rented the house to a young couple who - in the cold of winter - accidentally set the house on fire. A tinderbox, it burned to the ground very fast and the flames could be seen for miles toward the east. (The couple got out uninjured).

I have no idea who owns that property today, but I know it has never been built on. Some of the stonework remains, but has been grown over with all manner of wild vegetation. If it is never cleaned up I suspect it will be "discovered" someday by some excited young amateur archaeologists who will speculate about what happened and romanticize the story into something like they do with ancient relics in Europe. At the moment it is totally hidden.

Another pleasingly-situated, but small, house nearby belonged to a retired family from the north, named Waldo.  They were friendly and Mrs. Waldo was an excellent cook! Uphill from them was the home of well-known Chattanooga musician, Jon Robere. Mr. Robere was organist for the Tivoli Theater and Memorial Auditorium for many years. He also gave private lessons and played organ for St. Elmo United Methodist Church.

Above that family and along the narrow and heavily wooded lane stands the famous Cravens House of Civil War fame. The house is on a large flat lawn area which has been cleared of trees and is level. That would be the ideal place to park your car and make your own discoveries on the side of Lookout! Try walking on one of the many trails northward to encounter the sharp profile "spine" of the mountain (which leads straight down from Point Park and gives the mountain its signature profile view. You can step over that sharp ridge in one long stride! If you stay to enjoy the many other sightworthy things, you might encounter the ancient, mossy stone wall which has never been explained to my knowledge. (It is NOT a Civil War relic, or so say the "experts"! Did the Maya build it? No one knows!)

You will find boulders to climb on and the kids will like the easy trails provided by long-defunct railroad lines which once connected with a hotel on the bluff above. Rails are removed so the walking is easy. The Incline Railway, however, is only a short distance to the south. John Wilson's Park is easily reached from Cravens House which connects many trailheads for yet more fascinating hiking excursions; we should have been so lucky as to have this feature back in "my" day!

(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 cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
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