Most older Chattanoogans know the story of Chattanooga’s Mayor Ralph Kelley and Police Commissioner James E. “Bookie Turners commandeering the State of Georgia’s Civil War locomotive the General as it was being returned from the L&N Railroad's maintenance shop in Kentucky on its way to Kennesaw, Georgia, in 1961.
For many years the famed engine had been stored at the Union Station at the railroad terminal on the south side of 9th Street (Martin Luther King Boulevard) on property now occupied by the Tallan and Krystal Buildings across the street from the Read House hotel. It had become an integral part of the history of Chattanooga including its image on the municipality's official seal, stationery, cuff links, tie clips, etc.
After much publicity and a federal court case, the historical icon was ordered to be returned to its rightful owner, the State of Georgia, and Kelley's Raiders eventually suffered a defeat and the locomotive was returned to Kennesaw. Though spectacular, it was not the first time that Chattanooga and the State of Georgia and the railroad had become entangled over property in our town that belonged to Georgians.
In the early days of Chattanooga, the City Fathers had wanted the railroad to come to our city to connect railway traffic to the city of Atlanta. They had been very generous in giving the railroad a lot of land at very cheap prices that is located between Broad and Market Streets and extends south from 9th Street across 10th and 11th Streets to the L&N Railroad tracks. The property also included the site of the Edney Building at 11th and Market Street and formerly included the Hotel Plaza property at the intersection of Market and Georgia Avenue.
The first raider against the L&N Railroad was Mayor Edward David Bass (1873-1960). Bass became an orphan at age 11 and he left school to work on the production line at D.M. Steward Manufacturing Plant. Through hard work, he saved enough money to open a grocery store at the corner of Main Street and Central Avenue. In 1906, he ran and won a seat on the Hamilton County Court which began his career as a lifelong politician.
After winning the race, he sold his grocery store and began his political mission. In 1911, Bass ran for the state Senate and was elected. As a senator he passed legislation that allowed Chattanooga to change its government to a commission format. After serving a term in Nashville, he returned to Chattanooga and served as Commissioner of Streets and Sewers for three terms. It was during Bass’ last term as commissioner that he performed the act that earned him the title stated above.
In 1926 Broad Street ended at 9th Street (MLK Boulevard) where a row of brick warehouses owned by the State of Georgia sat empty. The city wanted to extend Broad Street and for years Bass had unsuccessfully tried to purchase the buildings to be razed and open up Broad Street as it exists today.
On Friday night, May 6, 1926, Commissioner Bass, without consulting the Mayor, city attorney or other commissioners, decided to open up Broad Street on his own. Assembling a large crew of street department workers, they descended on the empty buildings and tore them down. Their work started around 6:00 and by midnight the buildings were razed. A large crowd that had gathered to watch the destruction spectacle cheered Bass and his men on as they completed their task and the commissioner drove the first car through the opened buildings. For some unexplained reason, the Elks Club Band just happened to be at the scene and played the song Marching Through Georgia.
The work continued over the weekend until the length of Broad Street was extended and opened to Lookout Mountain. The State of Georgia did not take kindly to Commissioner Bass’s actions on behalf of the City of Chattanooga and filed suit but the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a state’s sovereignty ended at the state line. With this judicial approval Bass and his “band of raiders” tore down the buildings that blocked Broad Street at 11th Street. This allowed Broad Street to be linked with Whiteside Street that ran from Lookout Mountain to 12th Street and today is known as South Broad Street.
In 1927, the City of Chattanooga elected Bass as mayor and he would serve five terms as the longest office holder as Mayor in the history of the city. Ironically Bass had been rebuffed in 1923 when Mayor Alexander Chambliss had resigned to fill a seat on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Tennessee Governor Austin Peay had been pressured by the statewide Ku Klux Klan not to appoint Chambliss if it meant Bass would become mayor of Chattanooga. Governor Peay then asked Bass to promise that, if elected, he would not serve.
Bass agreed but in 1927 he ran and was elected beginning his 20-year tenure as Mayor. He accomplished several goals as mayor including the annexation which doubled the size of the city by adding St. Elmo, Missionary Ridge, Alton Park, North Chattanooga, Brainerd and Riverview. Bass took great pride in the fact that during the Great Depression Chattanooga was one of the few cities able to pay its debts without raising taxes and to maintain full employment with its employees.
Bass had intended to serve out his last term of office but because of health problems had to resign three months before his term expired. He moved to Florida and lived to the age of 87, dying on March 12, 1960.
* * *
(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at email@example.com