One very cold Saturday in early February of 2016 seven of us sat at a table in a downtown restaurant near the Tennessee Aquarium telling our reminiscences of Chattanooga. The Grand Matron of our group was an impeccably dressed, coiffed, and sharp-witted young lady of 94. Seems that that good lady had been the teen-aged baby-sitter for the two men in her party, who had been children at that time. The two boys had loved their Cousin Edna as they had enjoyed many things together before their mom and dad took them to far-off California. Now, after about 75 years, they were all reunited for a day, and they had invited my wife and me to join them for lunch as we would be able to interpret the much more modern city of Chattanooga to them. Neither of the ladies accompanying Edna was even alive when our story begins, and neither had ever lived in Chattanooga. All had driven up from Edna's Atlanta home that morning. Edna, the two "boys" and I were blood-kin; although the boys and I had never met.
These two "boys" (each now 80+ and in excellent health) became kids again for those two hours spent at table. WARNER PARK was the hot topic, as Edna used to take them there to enjoy all the great things that a city park can offer - the swimming pool, zoo, skating rink, picnic pavilion, car-racing track, memories of several Chattanooga and Hamilton County Interstate Fairs, the several motorized rides, etc. Those boys and I shared pretty much the same memories as we were so nearly the same age. Sad that I never knew them before they left town. We talked a lot about St.Elmo and Lookout Mountain as well, and it is amazing how much they remembered about their former hometown in spite of the years. My wife and I left them to go their own way after lunch following those very warm two hours on such a cold afternoon.
After that good meeting I have reminisced many times in my own mind the things I have liked best in and near my city. Yes, Warner Park was "the" place for kids in my day - it and Lake Winnie, although that lake was not nearly so accessible as Warner Park. My friend's mother used to have Lake Winnie stories, so I know, through her, that it was very popular long before my time. Now it has recently been added onto by the addition of a water park even though the original park remains as YOU remember it - pretty much.
Lookout Mountain simply cannot be matched for all its attractions - many of which you can enjoy on You Tube - and the videos found there keep improving. You can ride the Incline Railway in both directions and actually get a feeling of being there in person! You can go through fat-man's-squeeze at Rock City and enjoy the festive air of that place without getting tired! In earlier stories I have told how you can park your car at Cravens House to find and walk the many trails found there. Climb on the humongous boulders in the yard next door, which rolled down from the bluff aeons ago. These are all things that I did in my much younger years - and I still have the itch to go back! A memorable part of the Lookout Mountain experience was for years to "sign the big book" which was laid out on a table in a small museum in the exact same building where that immense historic painting is displayed by the National Park Service today. That book's pages easily measured 3' in width, making it at least 6' when open. I never saw it closed, but it was always there and open, crammed with signatures and comments from visitors - world wide. (It must have been at least a foot thick when closed). If the pages were 3' wide, then the book was 4' in height. Adults had to lean low over that huge book when necessary in order to sign at the top of each page. But that book was removed, apparently, when the museum closed and the Park Service took over. If anyone knows the whereabout of that book please contact me! It used to be a kind of "point of honor" to sign it - and it would be the first place my mom and her girlfriends would head for on their frequent trips to the mountain top. I will guarantee you that if your parents and/or grandparents are native Chattanoogan their names will be in it at least a dozen times, although it is not indexed. IF a local history museum ever actually gets started here, that book needs to be in it. The Park Service maintains a tight grip on Point Park as it always has. The Crown Jewel of the park - and of our city - remains the majestic sweeping view you get of Moccasin Bend in the Tennessee River form the Ochs Memorial observatory perched on the very point of the mountain.
Every part of town has its own set of "memorable" things - such as the well-remembered East Lake Park. Well over 100 years old now, most of the original park is still there, but a recent story on local TV news shows that it has been badly neglected with algae floating on top of dirty water... Money was allocated some time ago to make improvements, but those improvements have not yet been made. I remember how the Letter Carriers of Chattanooga used to have an annual picnic there, and how little kids used to have so much fun fishing in it. Juke-box music floated out from the big pavilion in the northeast corner to create a pleasing carnival-like atmosphere. My older grandson's first birthday party was held there - (and there was more birthday cake ON him than In him)!
Highland Park once boasted a movie theater - well remembered by many people. The Highland Park Theater was one of only two theaters for a long time that was not in the immediate downtown area (along with the Tivoli, State, Capitol, and several others). I think the "Riverview" was the second theater outside of downtown. Brainerd got a new theater, much later, which was equipped to show those ultra-widescreen features called "Cinerama". Whatever happened to those? Guess they died a natural death when they could not be shown on even wide-screen TV, much less be compressed for standard screen PC's and Netflix.
As an artist, I used to drive out to East Brainerd occasionally, looking for picturesque subject matter to paint. There was plenty of it: a fancy brick smokehouse, or a log cabin sitting on private property, or too far back from the road to view properly, or to photograph. I remember when Gunbarrel Road's rustic name actually did fit its location: the road was two-lane back then, and it was bordered with farms. One lane of the road went east and the other went west! I knew someone who lived in a log cabin on it! Ryall Springs was a rather old-fashioned farming community out beyond East Brainerd. East Brainerd has changed drastically since the Hamilton Place Shopping Mall was built there.
Brainerd, where I grew up, never had anything to compare with an East Lake Park. Perhaps the Southland Roller Rink is best remembered by my readers as an attractive Brainerd focal point. Kids came from everywhere to attend birthday parties there, or simply just to enjoy skating. The "Fire Hall #13" was known to be kid-friendly, and many a young boy (myself included) has stopped in there to see the brass pole and get a brief tour of the second floor sleeping quarters while on the way either to or from Kay's Castle Ice Cream. (Wow! Was their ice cream ever good!) Although hard to imagine now, Brainerd Road had only ONE tunnel until about 1950 when the second one was built. It was much needed to be sure, as a policeman had to stop all the inbound morning traffic and wave it through in single file at great inconvenience to the drivers. Ringgold Road had the Bachman Tubes through Missionary Ridge all my life. East Ridge eventually built a nice recreation center, but went years before getting it. Oops, nearly forgot that the good firemen at #13 fire hall could usually be induced to sound the truck's powerful siren; one slight touch of the button set off what seemed like several minutes of sound - especially inside the spacious area where the engine stayed parked most of the time. They would ring the bell for kids, too - a sound so resoundingly clear that when you got home you could still hear the ringing in your head and also the prolonged whirr of the siren. All boys of my generation were fascinated with fire engines and fire equipment. My neighborhood friend, Bill Jackson's uncle, Charles Weigel, was a long-time Chattanooga fireman who liked to tell us about some of the scary fires he had fought.
The Letter Carriers Auxiliary also used to have a member who lived on Signal Mountain - in the old part, adjacent to, or very near the golf course. Mom would take me up there on the old streetcar line, and It was about a five minute's walk from her friend's house. I used to enjoy going over to a shady wooded area where there was a spring with very cold (and "safe") water. It was locally known as "burnt cabin spring" - and I would like to know if it might still be there? It was in the edge of the woods, but with clear views of one of the golfing greens. Signal Mountain was home to one of the famous Alexian Brothers homes, and they have expanded to include a much more ambitious enterprise than in my time, when it was all self-contained in a single building. Not far from it is the highly impressive view of the Tennessee River Gorge. But I am hoping that someone might be able help me with the history of "burnt cabin spring". I have never heard that name mentioned since about 1945!
Hixson? That now-dynamic suburb north of the river? In my day it was a virtually un-reachable country town whose only industry was farming. To get there from my home in Brainerd it took some doing: Brainerd Road, through the tunnel, down McCallie Avenue, right onto Walnut Street, across that (blue) bridge, right onto Frazier Avenue until reachong Hixson Pike....and finally that Pike led into Hixson (like its name implies)! It was not until DuPont located there, where it is now, that pressure was put on the TDOT people to provide a new bridge. And what better place to build a bridge than on top of Chickamauga Dam? Hixson then became increasingly attractive to Chattanooga commuters, and Voila! - a new Chattanooga bedroom community!
But back to downtown: I liked the ancient Fischer clock - named for a long-time Fischer Jewelry Co. that stood there on the SW corner of Market Street at 8th. It used to sound chimes. (The present jewelry store name is Fischer-Evans. A similar old downtown monument was/is Fountain Square, which once was fenced in and housed alligators! I liked the "Firemens' Fountain" with the little statuette of a fireman atop. Many years ago the original fireman - holding his fire-hose - froze one winter and toppled off as it thawed, shattering on lower levels of the fountain. Epoxies were available by that time, and I do believe that the figure you see with the hose today just may be made out of epoxy, and not the original metal.
Now back to paragraph #1 above: the little (now 95) year old "Matron Lady" who headed our table on that cold February day last year is Edna Hitchings, now in a retirement home north of Atlanta. She remembers Chattanooga from a time before Chickamauga Lake had filled, and I have asked her to possibly write us a story about the really old times in town. She wrote that Christmas story we published last December and was so well-received that I hope she will write us another!
The above story was largely written to help our former Chattanooga friends who live in distant places such as Dubai, Spain, Montana,and even California to remember their home-town and its many fascinatingly good places. I know there are many more places that I did not get to - and people like Dalton Roberts used to write lovingly about an interesting watering trough somewhere in the vicinity of East Chattanooga, but I personally do not know anything about it. Hope this story satisfies some of your cravings!
The picture accompanying this story shows a plaque depicting four Chattanooga places, beloved to many: Hunter Museum of American Art (upper left), perched on the "Bluff View" bluff overlooking the popular pedestrian (Walnut Street) bridge. That bridge is accessed from Frazier Avenue (at bottom) and at top right is Lookout Mountain smiling its approval over our fair city. The material used to make that plaque - a limited edition - was high-fired porcelain. I used to own a kiln and made many porcelain medals - several of which are in the Smithsonian and British Museums. I could sculpture my own designs, cast them in plaster so as to make a drain mold which could produce many identical copies. The plaque in the picture is 5 inches tall by 10 inches wide. And, no, there are only two left in this world and they are already spoken for!
Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at email@example.com.