David Steinberg: A Condensed History Of Lookout Mountain Incline Cars From The Beginning In 1895

Tuesday, March 3, 2020 - by David Steinberg

With the recent announcement by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority, that in March of 2020 new cars will replace the current ones in operation on Chattanooga's famous Lookout Mountain Railway, it might be of interest to know the history of the other equipment that has been used from the line's inception.

It was November 16, 1895, that the Lookout Mountain  & Lula Lake Railway incline, then informally referred to as "Incline Number 2" because it was the second one to operate on Lookout Mountain and today simply known as "The Incline," was placed into operation. Interesting is the fact that virtually everything used in the construction  of the first incline railway was made locally in Chattanooga. The hoisting machinery was supplied by the Wheland Machine Works, the steam boilers and stack had been built by the local firm of Walsh & Wiedner, the cable sheaves and casting by the Ross-Meehan  Company and the safety brakes and similar appliances had been supplied by the Chattanooga Machinery Company. Local contractors, Armstrong & Phelps, built the buildings, track laying was supervised by local contractor John T. Crass and the cars themselves had been built by the local Chattanooga Car & Foundry Company.  Only the cables to hoist the incline cars had come from the famous John A. Roebling's Sons Company of Trenton, New Jersey, which had supplied the cables that to this day hold up the famous Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.

These initial nine-ton cars were quite simple in design and looked like nothing more than simple boxcars with seats on wheels. As it was destined to be, their existence and use would be terminated in  just over a year. In the early morning hours of December 13, 1896, a fire in the boiler room in the upper station raged through the building and spread to the nearby incline where the one car bedded there for the night was soon engulfed in flames. So intense was the fire that it melted the cables that held the car secure so that it soon was darting down the mountain like a brilliant meteor. When it was but a quarter of the way down, it jumped the tracks and was soon nothing more than a pile of wooden splinters.

It was determined that the incline would  be rebuilt immediately  and  that rather than rebuild the one car locally, it would be retired. In its stead, two new cars were purchased, this time by manufacturers experienced in the building of railroad equipment. Chosen to create the new cars was the Ohio Falls Car Manufacturing Company of Jeffersonville, Indiana, a town located just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. On the afternoon of March 4, 1897, less than three months after the devastating fire, the new elegant cars as they were then described, weighing in at but six tons apiece, brought the line back into service. These cars would remain in operation until July 15, 1911.

By then, electricity was in full vogue and the now antiquated steam boilers that necessitated coal for the operating of the hoisting equipment needed to be updated. A decision was made to secure new incline cars as well as the electrical equipment to power them. This time, the-then incline operators, the Chattanooga Railway & Light Company, turned to the then-famous Kuhlman Company of Cleveland, Ohio, world famous builders of renowned street cars and other railroad equipment, to come up with a design for the incline railway cars. Two new spacious cars were built, considerably different than the old ones and they were placed into service July 23, 1911. These cars were more open, affording an unobstructed view of the valley below as the cars ascended the summit. Unlike the old cars, there were no partitions between the vestibule and the car's interior and the side windows, which could be opened, were large enough to give plenty of view. An additional winter comfort were the electric heaters placed under the car's 32 seats. A new innovation of these cars was an observation platform at the car's rear end which could accommodate several people.

All went well until the wee hours of the morning of Monday, March 24, 1919, when unbelievably, for yet a second time in the line's short history, a devastating fire destroyed the upper mountain waiting station and power house once again! Exactly like the fire of 1896, the incline that was bedded down for the night at the top station, plunged down the mountain, as the local newspaper described it, "like the red maw of a volcano," and when it reached the overhead highway bridge half way down, it left the rails and splintered into a thousand pieces. Chattanooga Railway & Light Company, announced that the line would immediately be rebuilt. Unlike, the first time, the remaining Kuhlman-built car would be retained for service and a second car, with the same dimensions of the Kuhlman car would be built locally in the CR&L Railway shops at Market and Third Streets. The Chattanooga Railway & Light Company had become proficient in building cars, since for some time it had been rebuilding its own fleet of older streetcars and otherwise modernizing them locally. On Thursday, January 1, 1920, the new homemade incline car had been  readied and service was resumed on the famous attraction. These cars would continue to serve the mountain until November 16, 1949.

By that time, the old cars were aging and the-then operators of the incline, Southern Coach Lines, Incorporated, decided that besides the need to replace the cars, the line needed to be updated and modernized. To this end, Southern Manufacturing Company, a major transit bus manufacturer, located in Evergreen, Alabama, a town 79 miles south of Montgomery, was chosen to produce the new cars.

In 1950, the nostalgic streetcar era was over, with buses having become the backbone for local transit transportation. Thus, it came as no surprise that the new incline cars were to be fashioned into what resembled a motor coach bus on wheels - even to being equipped with two bus-type front end headlights. The cars were constructed of steel and aluminum and a new feature of these cars was the large amount of glass used, including an astrodome roof designed to give riders maximum viewing through not only the large side windows but through the roof as well. The new cars' seating capacity was increased to 40 from the 32-seat capacity of the previous Kuhlman-built cars. Additionally, whereas with the other cars used to date, it was necessary  for the car to have an overhead  trolley and wire arrangement to supply the electric light and heat for the cars, these new cars, true to bus arrangement, used storage batteries to provide illumination  at  night and  a propane tank supplied the cars' warmth. The cars were initially painted  on the exterior with a swamp holly orange paint scheme with a wide band of metallic red. The interior was finished in two shades of blue; the upper section resembling a sky shade and the lower section a medium blue. Seats were in red color. These cars remained in service until 1987 and during those years, the exterior paint arrangement was changed on numerous occasions.

In 1986, the Chattanooga Area Regional Transit Authority, the-then incline owners and operators decided it was time to retire the then 37-year old 1949 cars. A company just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Hall Industries, Incorporated of Ellwood City was commissioned in January of 1986 to build the new cars and this time, once again, it was determined that the cars would be returned to their more pleasing and appealing nostalgic trolley appearance. One car arrived February 26, 1987 followed on March 5 by the arrival of the second unit.

Even as the cars were being readied for delivery to Chattanooga, in mid-February 1987, a serious controversy commenced, when Hall Industries informed CARTA that there had been a cost overrun of some 35 percent on the original $565,000 contract that through seven change orders had been increased and accepted by CARTA to $588,000. CARTA contended that it should only be responsible for increased costs to which CARTA had specifically agreed to as directed in the contract and that it was not obliged to pay Hall Industries for the $200,000 to $300,000 additional unexpected charges. With the arrival of the cars, the controversy was set aside and the sole interest was focused on readying the cars for operation with several weeks of testing planned to ensure that all was in order.

And then chaos set in again!

When the cars were placed on the tracks and the hoisting motors were turned on, it was realized that a major mistake had been made! It was discovered  that the electrical amps that the two empty cars minus passengers was pulling was nearly at capacity! The weight of the new cars was 28,600 pounds each, or some 6,800 pounds more than the old cars. CARTA had apparently overestimated the weight of the old cars, which had always been assumed to be some 13 tons each or 26,000 pounds when in actuality they came in each at just over 22,000 pounds. Then measurements by Transit and Transportation Associates, an Atlanta consulting engineering firm incorrectly confirmed the asummed weight. This meant that the motors would either have to be rewound at a cost of $30,000 to $40,000 or new more powerful motors would need to be purchased for some $120,000. In the end, some 6,236 pounds of weight came off the cars reducing the cars' quaintness as  had originally been planned. Removed or altered were the heat reflective glass ceiling panels, the propane tanks fueling the heating system, decorative brass gates at the inclines' loading platforms and the wheels and axles. At the same time, the two 100 horsepower electrical motors were also sufficiently rewound to increase the incline's system power to handle the minor additional new weight of the cars. In April 1987, incline service was at last restored with the new incline cars. Rather than have to go to court and legal litigation, in May 1988, CARTA agreed to pay Hall Industries $180,000 to amicably settle the dispute over cost overruns and the construction of the cars and a costly and non-desired court procedure was averted ending the 18-month dispute. Jonathan Hall, company vice president thereafter commented that the decision hurt, but that it would be accepted. He reiterated that "We're committed to making those cars the best incline cars that Chattanooga has ever had."

Indeed, the Holt-built cars have served Chattanooga and the incline railway well some 32 years, but, now, once again, the incline will be closed on December 30 of this year 2019 for annual repairs and will not re-open until March 2020. When it re-opens, thanks to nearly $4 million in grants, the newest set of incline cars will be placed into operation. They are being built in Brookville, Pennsylvania, a town 82 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, by the Brookville Equipment Corporation, in business since 1918, a company that currently has a streetcar division that besides building new light rail equipment, specializes in the restoration, refurbishment and remanufacturing of existing streetcars that are currently coming back into vogue.

The new cars will very much resemble the Holt-built cars currently in operation and in fact the old blueprints used to manufacture the 1987-built cars were used to design the new cars. Improvements, however, will include a much-improved viewing area with the use of less metal and more window space. These new cars will be totally wheelchair accessible and maintenance of the cars will be simplified by the use of plastic seats as opposed to the cloth-covered seats currently in vogue. The new cars will also no longer sport a carpeted floor. There will be new improved lighting and on-board security cameras and heating and air conditioning, the latter of which was non-existent  in the older cars This will be a definite patronage plus for the hot muggy Chattanooga summers. The first Brookville car is expected in late February 2020 and the other one by early March. One Holt-built car will be donated to the local Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum while no decision has yet been made as to what will happen with the other car. In addition to the new equipment, the retaining walls on either side of the incline right-of-way will be reinforced and work will be performed at the St. Elmo down station to make it more wheelchair accessible.

CARTA and the Incline Railway are looking forward to the arrival of the new equipment and to being able to serve Chattanooga for an additional abundance of years.

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