John Shearer: Exploring And Searching For Greenways, Part 5 -- Finding Inspiration In Scary Times In Small South Chattanooga/St. Elmo Parks

Sunday, March 22, 2020 - by John Shearer

Since I began this series right after Christmas looking at current or potential greenways, I have surprisingly discovered a new green space or park I did not know existed in every part of Chattanooga I have inspected so far.


And I have also found that driving around and looking for park space to photograph has been nothing short of uplifting.


Both of these were definitely true this weekend.

I needed to visit some green space to get my mind off all the bad news about the coronavirus outbreak.


I hope that the parks will always be open through this scare, even though the playgrounds were understandably closed since children can easily congregate too closely.


And I hate that Reflection Riding – which is no doubt the most beautiful greenway space in the general South Chattanooga area I visited – had to close due to over-enthusiastic playground and treehouse use and too much close congregating. We could really use that beautiful park right now.


When I am out looking for current or future park space, I am checking primarily for wooded or grassy areas. The grass can be covered with a few trees, next to an old historic building, or sitting next to an asphalt greenway trail, and it is still beautiful to me.


I am not as interested in a baseball/softball or soccer complex, although it is usually not too bad if there are not too many fences or, even worse to me, locked fences. A lone baseball field at a small park is fine.


I found one such place Saturday when examining several park spaces in the Alton Park area south of the Interstate and St. Elmo.


Probably no one other than a parks or city official is aware of all of the ones I visited or has spent significant time at most of them. And that was one aspect of my enjoyment in getting to experience them all, as I could compare and contrast them.


They seem to straddle two areas not far apart in distance but somewhat distant from each other in aspects like culture and education and income level. But the fact they are right by each other can be seen as a positive.


The South Chattanooga/Alton Park area – which has historically been dotted with industrial sites -- is an area still trying to be made whole economically and opportunity wise. St. Elmo, meanwhile, is one of the very trendy and popular areas right now for college-educated professionals, and it has been known over the years for its diversity.


When I left my home near Northgate Mall about mid-morning Saturday and went down Market Street on my way to Alton Park Boulevard (which South Market Street becomes), I was actually headed to see Milliken Park at the corner of Alton Park Boulevard and West 45th Street.


But as the road-hitting CBS feature journalist Charles Kuralt used to say, “I found something more interesting along the way.”


As I passed the Howard Academy campus, I looked to my right across South Market Street and saw some nice grass and a path that looked far prettier than some of the industrial-style buildings around it. I turned right on West 28th Street and suddenly I found what was called Harris-Johnson Park.


It had a playground roped off with caution tape as all the city parks did, but it had a nice asphalt trail and, more important to me, grass that went on for about 200 yards in an L shape. And, even more important, the land was about 75 yards wide.


To say it is an urban oasis was an understatement. Too bad Miller Park just a few blocks north is not quite this big. And Harris-Johnson Park did even have several modest homes around it.


A plaque there says it was opened in 1996 on land donated by Wheland Foundry/North American Royalties and in honor of Ezra Harris and in memory of Charles Johnson, who had both worked to improve the quality of life in South Chattanooga.


Kudos to those two and especially the Gordon Street family, who headed Wheland/NAR!


I then drove on down Alton Park Boulevard and veered off to the left where the road splits and came upon something else interesting and which I had not noticed before. It was a neighborhood called Oak Hills, which I must admit I had also not heard of, despite living much of my life in Chattanooga.


In fact, I looked online and there seems to be some confusion over whether it is called Oak Hill or Oak Hills.


But down Ohls Avenue – which perhaps might be short for Oak Hills – I saw some grassy space about 200 yards long and 100 yards wide on both sides of the road. I am not sure if something is planned there, but it would make a great greenway with a little sprucing up. It also had a nice wooded area on its west side running back up to Alton Park Boulevard and a line of old trees on part of the right border.


It is another part of Chattanooga I had never seen before. Some newer housing was down across the northeast corner.


I then worked my way east to Central Avenue and then south until I hit the intersection with West 45 Street and finally arrived at my originally intended destination – Milliken Park. I must also admit I had never heard of that park, either, until Friday night when I was perusing the Chattanooga parks website.


But a Google search later revealed it was redone in 2013 during the early months of Mayor Andy Berke’s administration with some new offerings. That included a new playground with soft rubber padding ground cover, an asphalt walking trail, picnic facilities, a restroom building and other amenities.


And in 2017, Florida mural artist Eduardo Mendieta painted the brick entrance gate with colorful and upbeat themes as well as panels showing Lookout Mountain and the Howard marching band. It had been part of a Public Art Chattanooga project, and something about that seemed familiar to me.


What was a mystery, though, was where the Milliken Park name originated. Unlike with the Harris-Johnson Park, there was no plaque, and I could not find anything online. Since this area has been partly industrial for decades, maybe it is connected to the Milliken mill firm, or perhaps someone named Milliken.


Unfortunately, the Chattanooga Public Library, which might have had some old newspaper articles on it, is currently closed.


The arched entrance seems to date to before World War II and does not look that much different from the Riverview Park entrance in North Chattanooga built by a New Deal agency.


Regardless, the park is a godsend to an area that appears to be somewhat economically depressed. It is about 100 yards by 100 yards and has a simple baseball field in one area.


A view across the park from the side by Central Avenue is also a study in contrast. Lookout Mountain – which seems to loom over the Alton Park area like a cat surveying its backyard – sits handsomely in the distance beyond some historic homes and the grassy park with just a sprinkling of nice hardwood trees.


Also nearby, however, are industrial-related sites. A Gold Coast Fats and Oils facility is to the left looking to the west, and the larger and more historic-looking ADM Southern Cellulose Products complex is to the right.


Regardless of all the surroundings, the small park manages to bloom where it is planted, and I found that inspiring. And that is definitely true with the colorful, two-sided mural that shines like spring blossoms.


I then began working my way to South Chattanooga Park/Ben Miller Park “by that pretty and historic school building of unknown name that is across West 40th Street from Forest Hills Cemetery and is now used for training and offices by Hamilton County Schools.”


But once again, on the way to visit this place I had originally described that way to myself, I was sidetracked – but by something beautiful. On the south side of West 45th Street between Chandler and Oakland avenues was a grassy field about 150 yards long and 100 yards wide.


It was nothing but grass, and actually looked a little like a cow pasture, and I started imagining it as park space. I am not sure who owns it, but I was glad it is there and I got to enjoy it for the first time. Since this part of Chattanooga is not quite in high residential demand right now, even though St. Elmo is just to the west and the trendy Southside is just to the north, an altruistic person could probably find a few spots like this and buy them as greenway space.


He or she might want to do that before the builders and developers move in after running out of space at those other places.


Anyway, after passing for the first time a simply gorgeous century-old white wooden church where West 45th Street becomes Ohls Avenue again, I finally got back over to the school and grounds site. I had actually jogged there Thursday for the first time after dropping something off at a St. Elmo office, and about 2003 I went there for two or three days of student teaching training while getting certified at UTC. 


But I never knew the name of the school before. It is a simply beautiful school building of the early 20th century style, and because it has a nice grassy area with a few large trees in front of it, it qualifies as a great greenway space in my book.


Actually, jogging in front of it and getting to enjoy the fine architecture of man as well as the fine architecture of God through Lookout Mountain in the background was the highlight of my exercising that day. OK, so there was a little traffic passing on West 40th Street that affected the peaceful setting a little, but it was still quite enjoyable.


There is also plenty of grass behind the building and an asphalt walking trail and even some woods leading up behind the Food City shopping center, although the latter appeared to have some piles of items in them, perhaps dwelling materials for homeless people. The old trees around a pair of aging tennis courts also looked nice and classic.


All that and some old concrete stands below a metal gate with the letter “L” had a nice effect on me, and I thought the year could have been about 1955 as easily as 2020.


That “L,” though, made me wonder what the name of the old school was. But once again, I felt a little helpless after nothing came up on a Google search regarding “the name of that old school on West 40th Street.” And the library was, of course, closed.


But then I looked in my copy of “Chattanooga’s Story” by John Wilson in the index under L, and, sure enough, I found entries for Lookout Junior High and quickly realized that was the name of the school.


A Google search for Lookout Junior High revealed a very detailed story from 2003 in by former regular contributor – and Lookout Junior High alum -- Harmon Jolley. He said the school, which many often confused with Lookout Valley Junior High, was opened in 1925, and its auditorium was built in 1926. Col. Creed Bates – later the well-known principal of Chattanooga High – was its first principal.


The school stayed open until 1974 before being converted to other school-related uses, and as of 2003, was regularly having reunions.


That tree-covered lawn in front of the school was definitely the highlight for me, even though it is a little different from a typical greenway in most people’s minds. Saturday morning, I was enjoying capturing a few moments in front of the school with both my camera and my eyes when a woman pulled into the parking lot and started walking toward me.


She said she was a St. Elmo resident, an obviously proud one, I could tell, and was wondering if I was an alumnus of the old school and wanted my picture taken in front of it. She had apparently noticed old alums visit the school before.


I told her I was just doing a story on some of the greenways in the area, and I asked exactly where that 65-acre tract was that had recently been preserved through a fund-raising effort. She said it was the area above the GreenTech homes on the slope of Lookout Mountain, and also told me about the Hawkins Ridge footpath/trail on the east side of St. Elmo behind Forest Hills Cemetery and how to get there via Tennessee Avenue.


Unfortunately, I could not find the Hawkins Ridge trail, although I am sure it is quite a boon to a community with a lot of homes historically packed in closely. After looking at an online map after I arrived back home, I realized I had just missed it, but hope to go back and see it sometime.


But I did find in that general area a simply beautiful stretch of Chattanooga Creek off Burnt Mill Road I had not seen before.


I was also clueless about finding the new acreage secured by the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, in part because I could not find its exact location online. But because one newspaper article at the time of the fund-raising said part of it would somehow connect with “the Southern spur of Michigan Avenue,” I went to the southern dead end of Michigan Avenue, and got out and took some pictures of the beautiful rocks in the woods.


Hopefully I was close to it. If not, I know the trail is located in a similarly pristine and sloping place where having one leg shorter than the other might be an advantage to a hiker!


To wrap this story up since I am already getting a little long, I then quickly stopped at three more greenways. The first was St. Elmo Park on the west side of St. Elmo Avenue between West 49th and West 51st streets. Like the other green space or parks I visited, it has enough grassy space and/or a path for someone to jog around or walk for 30 or more minutes and not get bored.


It does have just a straight sidewalk to the pavilion and restrooms instead of a circular one, though. But it uniquely has a grassy slope on one side for people who want to do everything from run quick wind sprints repetitively up a small slope, to perhaps sitting and listening to an event, although it is kind of steep.


I then went north a few blocks to Roy Nelms Park at 1609 W. 41st St. This also-sloping and tiny park is more of a place to just stop and catch your breath – especially if you have been walking or running up its slope – or to have a picnic or small event.


Compared to St. Elmo Park, it is definitely more ideal simply for sitting than exercising. But it has some unusual hedge plantings and a nice gazebo, and by far the most unique – and perhaps only – bird bath I saw during my visit.


It was dedicated in 1996 – the same year as Harris-Johnson Park in South Chattanooga – and was named for longtime St. Elmo resident and neighborhood leader Roy Nelms.


Beautiful historic homes are around this park, and a small and nice triangle of grass is across Alabama Avenue. The setting was a somewhat sharp contrast to the more industrial or commercial surroundings around a couple of the South Chattanooga parks.


There may also be a small historic and wooded park space with a unique dual concrete staircase near the Thankful Episcopal Church on Alabama Avenue between 42nd and 43rd streets, but I did not get a chance to visit it this time.


My final stop was John C. Wilson Park at 2010 Cummings Highway, a small and well-manicured grassy area with several picnic pavilions done in a top-notch way. Described as a “wayside park,” it has trails behind its upslope leading to the Guild-Hardy trails on the side of Lookout Mountain.


It had been named for publisher and “Chattanooga’s Story” author John Wilson, who had started a personal effort to clean up the somewhat blighted site that had once been the location of a water park. The park was dedicated in 2006 and is part of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy.


On Saturday, several red buds there were in full bloom to lift the spirits of anyone during this troubled time.


I know they lifted mine, as did seeing all the people walking around, from the couple in South Chattanooga I passed multiple times walking their pit bull-like dogs, to the woman I saw in St. Elmo walking her small child in a stroller near Michigan Avenue.


Let’s hope the situation does not get worse and some kind of temporary ban has to be placed on going out to these parks.


We definitely need them right now, even the small ones. And hopefully people can do better than apparently occurred at Reflection Riding and maintain social distancing, since Chattanooga’s exercising populace should be able to fit in all its green space easily without overcrowding.


All I know is that – despite the simplicity of some of these greenways and parks in South Chattanooga -- they certainly helped with my emotional wellness for a couple of hours.


* * * * *

Followup note about Milliken Park — After this story was first posted, Sheldon Owens, the head of the local history and genealogy department at the Chattanooga Public Library, found an old newspaper article from 1928 when Milliken Park was first dedicated.

The Chattanooga Times article from May 14, 1928, he photocopied and emailed said the nearly four-acre tract that had a playground for children and other offerings for older people was dedicated the day before. It was named in honor of the then-late W.C. Milliken and his still-living wife, apparently in honor of their years as popular educators in Alton Park.

The story said several hundred people were on hand for the event, which included the singing of “America” by the attendees and a performance by the Central High band prior to the ceremonies. The featured speaker was Alton Park native Frank Carden, while Alton Park Mayor S.O. Kinsey also attended, as did the Alton Park board of commissioners.

“Speakers at the dedication of the park yesterday agreed that it was one of the best investments Alton Park has yet made for the future welfare of its boys and girls as the representatives of its future citizenship,” the article said, adding that the sounds of enthusastic children playing could be heard.

This suburb of both homes and factories at the time was its own city, but later became part of the city of Chattanooga, as did the park.

* * * * *

To see the previous story in this series, read here.


* * * * *

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