John Shearer: Exploring and Searching For Greenways, Part 9 – Finding Peace At Booker T. Washington State Park

Monday, May 11, 2020 - by John Shearer

When the various city parks and other recreation areas that had been closed reopened on May 1, I unfortunately did not get up at 6:30 a.m. that Friday to go jogging at an as-yet-unvisited one for a story to continue this series.


I would have liked to, but I was trying to finish up some other stories.

But on Saturday afternoon – eight days later -- I finally had an opportunity to get started exploring another natural area by visiting Booker T. Washington State Park off Highway 58.


And what I found on this day was a nice park that seemed to have a quiet and peaceful feel. And I am not talking about just the setting around the lake and woods, but also the social feel. It had a nice number of people, but not too many on this day, and I felt that it was kind of uplifting to see both white and black Chattanoogans sharing the same spaces.


And everybody seemed to be socially distancing well, too!


I must admit that I have never been to this park, even though it was a state park and I have spent about 43 of my 60 years living primarily in the Chattanooga vicinity. And I am sure a few others have not been to it, either.


But located only about a 5-to-7-minute drive from the Highway 153/Highway 58 interchange, it is actually more easily accessible to a good part of the Chattanooga community than many of the other lakefront parks in Hamilton County.


The park has always intrigued me with its founding as a place for recreation for black area residents dating to the days of segregation, so I have actually wanted to visit it for some time. And it seems like I have also heard over the years that it has a good-sized swimming pool.  


According to some information found online, it was selected as a state recreation area for blacks in the late 1930s during the Great Depression, and it was the second one in the state for such a purpose, behind what is now the T.O. Fuller State Park near Memphis.


When state officials were looking for such a facility in East Tennessee, they also considered an area near Norris Lake closer to Knoxville, but they figured the Chattanooga area had a larger black population and was better situated.


Using two black Civilian Conservation Corps units at different times, the land was prepared for slight use, but the long-term work was disrupted by World War II. However, by 1950, it was made into a state park and officially dedicated.


It, of course, was named in honor of Booker T. Washington, the popular black education advocate of the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He apparently had no direct connection with Chattanooga, and the name was likely chosen with a positive national black role model in mind.


Perhaps uniquely, his photo adorns several places at the park, as do historical markers about him and his speeches. One of them even tackles the long-debated historical question regarding whether he pushed hard enough for blacks to one day be on equal footing in all areas with white citizens in America.


Some historical information on the black CCC units is also on display, so history is covered pretty good here.


Apparently so is recreation. If there is one activity that visitors seem to enjoy doing at Booker T. Washington park, it is going fishing. I found several dozen people casting lines from the various piers or sides along the quiet water inlets alongside Lake Chickamauga on Saturday.


In fact, I thought I might see popular fishermen of fiction Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, too, but did not.


Going through the gate off Champion Road, which is off Highway 58 in a westerly direction, requires going down a somewhat steady hill about 600 yards to reach the lakefront. I think I originally envisioned the area to be mostly flat, except maybe some wooded areas.


I decided to park my car by the lake and then kind of slowly work my way back up the hill jogging and taking pictures, knowing generally – but not totally -- what I was going to encounter along the way.


After circling around the boat unloading area past an old and worn-out-looking wooden picnic table, I parked along the long parking stretch facing the lake. It was a pretty scene and setting, and I noticed I could see Signal Mountain way off in the distance to the west and, somewhat surprisingly, Chickamauga Dam three or so miles south.


One fact I have learned from visiting these places so far is that Signal or Lookout mountain are visible from nearly every park or green space in the greater Chattanooga area.


The romantic setting along the water and the numerous parking spaces facing the water no doubt offer a “lover’s lane” feel, and the spaces likely have been enjoyed by couples over the years – at least before the park closes at dark.


I then jogged and stopped numerous times to check out the natural and the manmade. Those included the variety of views of the lake, the piers and the one or two inland water areas, as well as the historical markers and the sloping wooden restroom building.


Based on its look, the latter was probably built in the 1960s or ‘70s. It had more of a 1960s’ style, but it seems like I remember when a lot more state money was put into the state parks about the 1970s, when a golf course and inn were built at Fall Creek Falls park.


I like restroom buildings at recreation areas that have a flair for eye-catching architecture and are not plain Jane or built for functional use only.  


The water fountain near it was also interesting. It was built in Crab Orchard-style stone from near Crossville – I believe. Several gates and steps and even buildings around Booker T. Washington State Park also featured this, and this extra enhancement from the more available state funds during normal times no doubt gives the park an additionally nice aesthetic effect.


After viewing all the neat water views and people acting normal despite the coronavirus pandemic, I went past a variety of interesting-looking picnic tables from different eras while climbing a hill to view the pool surrounded by a fence.


Not opened yet and void of water, it is an L-shaped structure with a baby pool on one end. While not the largest pool I have seen, it does have plenty of space and seemed to be in good condition.


A large – and apparently closed – building surrounded it. It or part of it probably dated to the 1950s. A vintage sidewalk was also below it on the lake side.


But what really caught my eye was a nice long meadow featuring some kind of yellow wildflowers – or maybe just attractive weeds – covering it. A beach volleyball court was covering part of the field, too, and the whole area might have at one time been used for some other kind of sports.


But it looked nice as kind of a natural space on this day.


In fact, my only wish for this park was that it had more open green space that was either flat like this or gently undulating, unless similar space is up near the closed camp and group activity area, or the additional picnic areas. Instead, much of it is sloping woodland, which is not bad, either, compared to asphalt and subdivisions.


Also in view from the elevated pool area in different directions were outdoor basketball courts and a couple of playground areas, part or all of which were apparently still closed due to the health outbreak.


I then ran the last 200-300 yards up the slightly sloping hill to the interesting-looking park administrative and information office near Champion Road. Also featuring that nice 1960s- or maybe early 1970s-style architecture of sloping rooflines, glass, Crab Orchard stone and wooden siding shingles, it is a nice sight to greet visitors. That is, even though recreation users are there to enjoy outdoor activities and not take part in a study in architecture.


Peering inside, I could see a picture of Mr. Washington.


Across the entrance road from the office is a one-story, mid-century home that might be the park superintendent ‘s or administrator’s home. Or at least it was likely built for that purpose.


After seeing that the camp and group activities area beyond the administrator’s home was closed to the public – as more than one sign seemed to announce – I began going back down the hill.


And that is when I noticed the nicest surprise of my visit. Standing inside a small enclosure were a red-tailed hawk named Maggie and, adjacent to it, an owl. They both stood there proudly and at least symbolically were like sentries at a military base, based on their location near the office building and home.


A sign said they had not been able to be used as part of the education program of the park due to the pandemic.


The owl swiveled its head to look at me as I walked past, pointing out how smart those majestic creatures are.


I then went back down the hill to my car, and I drove halfway back up to the entrance area to my last intended place to visit – the Booker T. Washington Nature Trail.  


I got out and walked in a couple hundred yards on two different trails of this path that I think is quite winding and long. I just wanted to get a flavor of it. It looked nice and had plenty of hardwoods, although a small number of trees had been toppled either in the April 12-13 storm or some time recently.


I noticed how much cooler it was under the canopy on this sunny day, even though it was very mild temperature wise for May.


Plenty of poison ivy was growing along the trail, so I was thankful no one passed me and would have forced me to move into this possibly itchy villain of the vegetative kind to keep a six-foot distance.   


While not an overly beautiful trail, although it might have been in the fall based on the few maple trees I saw, it still seemed to be a nice offering. That is especially true considering that it was near the much different natural amenity of lake or river water. So, one can experience a two-for-one natural treat here.


As I drove down Champion Road, which still seemed to have plenty of undeveloped areas nearby, I thought that possibly some of that land could be connected with the park, if it is not already.


And as I went past a long power line right of way with nothing but green grass visible for hundreds of yards below it, I thought it might be neat if maybe that could be part of a greenway trail as well, although I am not sure about health or easement issues.


I then I got back on familiar Highways 58 and 153, and I was glad to have met this new natural friend named after the earlier pioneer black educator and located almost surprisingly just minutes from my Northgate Mall area home.


* * * * *


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


* * * * *

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