Chester Martin: Some Of My Favorite Memories Of Chattanooga

Monday, April 22, 2019 - by Chester Martin

First, let's start with Lookout Mountain, the very best emblem that a city could possible have! We could definitely call it "Our Mountain" simply for all the good times we have had on it, around  it, near it, and even UNDER it (Ruby Falls!). It's the main focal point that all the tourists want to see - the grandparents who bring their young people to visit, even as when their own grandparents brought them here. We all have our stories to tell about it - the events held there, the history lessons we learned there, and its many sights.

I am personally happy that I got to visit there many times before access to the bluff area was closed to the public. Liability does not seem to have been a big issue at all until the last several decades, as we find pictures of Victorian families enjoying picnic baskets out on those bluffs - or atop Umbrella Rock. Many times I have climbed  from the Cravens House area to gaze upward at those massive stones of the bluff before following the trail around to the west side where an iron stairway led you upward into the park proper. (I have understood that those steps were put there at the time of the Civil War to make the climb easier for heavily laden soldiers). Such weekend adventures as this were what people did before the days of TV and the much later video games, and they were always enriching experiences - always entertaining, if not a bit tiring. A favorite view of mine from Point Lookout in years long past was of the colorful crazy-quilt layout of Moccasin Bend when it was home to many small farmers who planted many different crops which produced a magnificent visual image to anyone taking it in from the vantage point of Point Lookout. That was long before the hospital was built in the early 1960's as the old settlers on the Bend either gradually died off or moved away.

Even now when I am no longer any good at climbing I never fail to take a long look at that mountain whenever it comes into view - whether I am returning from Atlanta - or have reached the "overlook" on I-75 on a return-trip from Philly - or only from Knoxville. In spring, I like to see how the greening of the foliage progresses slowly up the mountain's east side, and how it descends again, bringing a colorful show of autumn foliage with it six months later. The Nature Center (on the west side) never fails to leave some good memories with us as each year progresses. Such vistas of Lookout never fail to remind me of the suburb of St. Elmo, which lies at its foot - so dear to the hearts of many, who, like my mother, grew up there. 

Another fantastic view was from the Bluff View grounds of the Hunter Museum of American Art (originally known simply as Hunter Gallery), looking upstream toward the northeast. Before the new addition to Hunter - and before construction of Veterans Bridge - the Tennessee River appeared as an absolutely pristine, untouched river, except for the occasional barge or pleasure boat which passed by. Summer foliage hid buildings on either side of the river so well that you might think the wonderful Cherokee People still ruled and held their councils there - as they had at Citico, not far away. Bluff View had been a designated "sacred site" in Cherokee lore since time immemorial.

As a kid - and almost until a teenager - I had been taken frequently to visit a maiden aunt of my mother's, "Linnie" Smith, (Melinda Rawlings Smith) who lived on Oak Street, at the exact spot where Centenary United Methodist Church has a parking lot today. Some stately old Victorian brick apartments were mixed in with wooden buildings all along both sides of the street. Aunt Linnies's one room apartment was on the second floor, and I believe she had two windows overlooking Oak Street, with at least one on the east side of the house. In summer all the windows stood open - and I do not even remember that there was screen wire. These open windows let in all the noises from the street - and especially memorable were the streetcars which sometimes passed at a fast enough speed to create a singing sound made by their steel wheels riding over steel  rails. Rails were always separated by about 3/16ths of an inch to allow for expansion of the rails in summer, and when the steel wheels hit these gaps it made a loud clicking sound. As the cars started up and increased in speed, the pitch of the "singing" became higher - and when you added the percussively constant clicking noise, it was a true delight to the ear! I can truly say I miss that sound a lot, and Oak Street has never been the same since. Those old Oak Street cars had a straight shot from Georgia Avenue all the way to Central Avenue - known in my mother's day as East End Avenue, as it was literally the east end of town. No viaduct had yet opened across the naturally formed declivity, ideal for the railroad tracks coming from the north into Terminal Station which opened in 1909. That is the station we call today the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo". Other cars turned off Oak Street at Palmetto - and it was always pronounced "Pal"-metto in those days; never  "Pahl"-metto!

Other delights of Oak Street were the loud cries of street vendors who sold coal, principally, while others sold ice. All the vendors used horse-drawn wagons, and the clopping of the horses' hooves on the brick pavement made a kind of reassuring sound that said everything was okay, even during the dark World War Two years. A few men pushed empty handcarts ahead of them, however, so can only speculate that they were delivery people who were returning home after dispersing their wares. (But I can still hear those vendors' loud voices shouting "COOOOAL" to the entire neighborhood.) The ice-men did not shout, as they were only interested in finding their regular customers who hung printed cards outside their front door every morning indicating their need for 5, 10, 15, or 20 pounds of the product. The right amount would then be delivered to a receptacle on the front porch.

"Old" Ninth Street - before it was widened about 1960 - and still long before it was re-named Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard, had a lot of character: Though tarnished in spots, this most interesting section extended from Broad Street, east, to beyond the Volunteer Building (opposite the Soloman Federal Office Building). There were many pawn shops, photographers (Peoples Studio where I got my very first passport pictures made), second-hand bookstores (Read More Books), and a couple of taverns to round out the wide mixture of businesses. I should not leave out the very popular Millard Reece Cafe, which opened off 9th Street exactly at Georgia Avenue. They had old fashioned wooden double-doors with large panes of glass - decorated beautifully with the fanciest example of gold leaf sign art I have ever seen in all my travels!  I would PAY to get a pic of that masterpiece - either in color or black and white!  Millard Reece Cafe stood at the precise location of the present northeast corner of Miller Park. The old cafe succumbed to "urban renewal", and the new First Federal Savings and Loan became the new tenant of the land. First Federal, then, in its light and airy new building commissioned Chattanooga artist George Little to paint his widely appreciated mural of the Tennessee River as seen from Signal Mountain  as a major feature of their interior. That mural was fortunately saved from the wrecking ball, and is still preserved, I am told, at Girls Preparatory School (GPS).

Chattanooga, like most other cities, has had a lot of wonderful  sites worth preserving - probably more than most cities. I fully realize that Progress must happen and that some venerable old things must go. I am just grateful I am old enough to remember a few of the truly great  things about town...and that so much of the "old" is still preserved in books like those of John Wilson. Take one with you during your next vacation!

Also, if you have any interest in Art, please check out my new Art Blog which is already appearing under "Happenings" in this newspaper online!

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at

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