John Shearer: Exploring And Searching For Greenways, Part 34 – Visiting Evolving Warner Park

Wednesday, November 24, 2021 - by John Shearer

If one thinks of parks and greenways in Chattanooga or within Hamilton County, the most classic would have to be Warner Park.

 

Chattanooga had Warner Park decades before the term, “Outdoor City,” was starting to be used or downtown amenities was part of a catchphrase.

 

This park is also likely the city’s most eclectic recreation area, as it seems to have almost everything but a mountain trail.

It even has an exhibit of mountain lions, or cougars, along with camels, giraffes and jaguars in its zoo that dates to 1937 but has been expanded in scope and size in recent years.

 

And despite the park’s somewhat limited acreage due of course to its location on the edge of downtown, it still seems to achieve that goal of offering a respite to visitors just there for some peace and quiet. 

 

And that is true even on a day when plenty of traffic passes by Holtzclaw or McCallie avenues and Third Street, or when dozens of people are there for the more physically encountering sporting activities like softball, tennis and swimming. And this is also true when the Chattanooga Zoo is busy, or when one gets too close to the aforementioned animals and critters.

 

Historically speaking, Warner Park and Chattanooga go way back. It had originally been the site of the private Olympia Park, which dated to the late 1800s and featured horse harness racing. 

 

In 1912, it became a city of Chattanooga park after City Commissioner J.H. Warner, who had become quite successful as a hardware store chain operator and investor in coal and iron and financial ventures, made a push to increase recreational opportunities. It was named in his honor.

 

Since then, Warner Park has stood handsomely by when that was a popular suburban area in the early decades of the 20th century, during the urban flight days beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s, and on to the period of today highlighted by renewed interest in living near downtown.

 

I also go way back with Warner Park personally. Primarily, I used to take part in the Bright School picnic every May as a student from the mid-1960s until I graduated from the sixth grade in 1972.

 

We would take an entire Friday school day to have a variety of races, eat lunch on the grounds, and then ride the neat small rides – including the circular swings and the small train you could jump off while it was moving. The latter action was, of course, much to the chagrin of school officials. 

 

The fifth and sixth grade boys would also have a baseball game against each other before changing times made the competition wisely into a coed softball game long after I graduated. And then there was the arcade and gift shop where some younger student would get tricked into chewing on a piece of pepper gum.

 

Because of all this, Warner Park has always had a feeling of nostalgia for me, and I am thankful a few tangible reminders of the Bright School picnics of 50-plus years ago remain here, despite the constant changes at the park.

 

I was not sure how I was going to fit in Warner Park on my greenway and park series, but on Friday I just headed on over there. For my most recent story in the series, I visited the very expansive grounds of Woodland Park Baptist Church on a day when my pictures showed very cloudy skies after rainy weather was still around that day.

 

As a result, I have decided to visit the last few places for this series only on days when the sky is perfectly blue. That was the case Friday, when I left my home near Northgate Mall about mid-afternoon and made my way along Amnicola Highway and Holtzclaw Avenue before briefly heading up near Missionary Ridge to take a photo of a house for another story.

 

I pulled into the parking lot alongside Holtzclaw Avenue and immediately saw a tree turning a nice fall color, as if it were a Warner Park greeter.

 

Planning to jog while I took pictures, I then went past several places that were not there more than a decade or two ago. There was a small runoff, bottomland area with some plantings and even an amphitheater-like sitting area, a small bridge, a cute giant softball/baseball statue, some newer buildings related to the Chattanooga Zoo, and even a couple of camels beyond a fence.

 

Moving a little in the direction of McCallie Avenue, I passed the updated softball complex of fields on my left along with a small soccer field and another field, the latter two of which were covered with an artificial surface. A nice playground was also in that area. 

 

These fields on the edge of the four main softball fields were where the amusement rides once were when I was a Bright picnicker.  Time had moved on, and park officials were obviously not letting Warner Park stay in a vacuum or asking this sentimental Chattanoogan if making the changes was OK.

 

But while continuing toward McCallie Avenue, I did see a couple of old friends – the arch-laden pavilion connected to the swimming pool and the open field where part of our picnic was. Although I think the open field maybe stretched a little more toward Frost Stadium softball complex and where a smaller ballfield once stood, there was still enough of it remaining to take me nostalgically and happily back in time.

 

The field remaining is, I think, more where we ate lunch at the picnic.

 

After soaking all that in, I headed over to the area surrounding the main softball fields and near the corner of McCallie and Holtzclaw avenues. This was once where the rose garden was, but now it is more of a runoff pond.

 

There was some water in part of it, and it was a nice visual distraction. However, I had to get into the area by walking along McCallie Avenue and then entering where a temporary fence was broken. I got back into the park back near the old Bright picnic open field by climbing under a fence that was slightly pulled up.

 

Needless to say, I came to the conclusion park officials do not want people like me in there, although I saw no “do not enter” signs. Perhaps they are concerned small children at the park with their families for a softball tournament or game might wander over there and want to get into the water.

 

The park administrators should obviously have some kind of fence around the water area like at East Lake Park, but that area and much of the whole park was also calling for a walking path going around the softball fields and the runoff area.

 

They could make it like the nice sidewalk leading from around the zoo entrance to the swimming pavilion, and they could probably come up with close to a half-mile loop that would be great for power walkers who live near downtown or even work in the area.

 

Maybe that is part of the future. If not, I would like to recommend that it be.

 

Continuing to take a few pictures, I then went past the tennis courts alongside McCallie Avenue, then around the downtown side of the Frost Stadium used by the UTC softball team, and then I saw an old park building near the swimming pool I had never seen before.

 

I also saw a Chattanooga Zoo sign on that end at what was obviously the employee and maintenance entrance. But perhaps it was an old public entrance, based on the fancy sign which was obviously not initially meant to be read only by the staff or maintenance crew.

 

I then went back past the large pool and thought of the countless Chattanoogans who had swum there over the years.

 

As one who uniquely likes to jog on grass and not concrete or asphalt, I had been jogging around the grassy aspects of the park with my iPhone, but when I got back by the old picnic field, I took a few vigorous laps for about 10 minutes.

 

For a moment or two, I pretended I was young again and back running in the dash races at the picnic – and thinking about getting to ride a few rides after eating a delicious lunch made partly by the parents and partly by the school.

 

After that, I realized that the old Warner Park Fieldhouse built for the 1953 Billy Graham revival was only now accessible from one end to a non-zoo visitor. So, I got back in my car and drove around and walked up to the north end and admired the mid-century trim on the building.

 

I also thought of maybe even more creative uses it could have.

 

I then drove off for good and was feeling physically and emotionally refreshed on this heavenly day, knowing that this park that is as crowded with different facilities as an American dining room table is with dishes on Thanksgiving Day still has a few natural areas to enjoy.

 

* * * * *

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

https://www.chattanoogan.com/2021/11/3/437769/John-Shearer-Exploring-And-Searching.aspx

 

* * * * *

 

Jcshearer2@comcast.net


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