Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died in service of our country. There are special observances and some will celebrate the holiday as the first day of summer vacation. The holiday is very special to the families who lost love ones and friends while serving in the military. Visitors to the University of the South at Sewanee will discover the school has a history of crosses but one in particular is 100 years old and it has special meaning for Franklin County, students and alumni alike.
School officials said the giant 60-foot cross was constructed as a memorial to those from Sewanee and Franklin County who died in World War I but as time went on other conflicts were added.
A special fund was established to pay for giant flood lights that light up the site at night. Construction was completed in 1923.
Chattanooga Attorney Jerry Summers did research on the large cross located at the end of Tennessee Avenue and He calls it ‘a spectacular sight.’
The 1963 graduate said the cross is a place of reflection for him. He said, “One visitor told me, 'It’s where God goes to think.' ”
Mr. Summers said another student described it as “a special place to go with the burdens of the world on their shoulders and leave with peace.”
Chattanooga Funeral Home Vice President Stephen Pike, a 1988 University of the South graduate, said a lot of folks have no idea the 100-year-old War Memorial Cross exists and overlooks the Middle Tennessee town of Winchester.
He said, “We live in stressful times, but Sewanee is a place you can visit that’s peaceful, historical and meaningful. It was so meaningful to me while a student – I spent a lot of time there.”
At the base of the century-old large cross are memorial plaques for five different wars, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.
School officials said the large cross has its place in Tennessee history and should never be forgotten - especially during the Memorial Day season.
Chattanooga attorney and former city court judge Russell Bean didn’t attend Sewanee but several of his family members did. Judge Bean said, “When passing the large cross I'm reminded of what Christ did for us and I remember that thousands have died in service to our country.”
After a long walk up the plateau in 1922, Vice Chancellor Albion Williamson Knight came up with the idea of this enduring symbol, the large cross.
University Historiographers Jerry Smith and Sam Williamson wrote this detailed story which was recently emailed to friends, students and alumni.
Sewanee is a place of crosses. Religion students once counted more than four hundred crosses or images of crosses in All Saints’ Chapel. Many more can be found in the Chapel of the Apostles, in University Cemetery, in the several private chapels of Sewanee, in the cruciform floorplan of old St. Augustine’s Chapel, on the foundation stone of Clement Chen Hall, and in the stunning rood screen of old St. Luke’s Chapel. Not least, of course, is the most famous of all Sewanee crosses—the War Memorial Cross at University View.
We will come to the story of that largest-of-all our crosses in a moment, but first a note about the lay of the land in Sewanee. It is no coincidence of a morning sunrise that the Cross (to use our short form of expression) is where it is today. Long before the University was founded, the “lost” (the Native American word “Sewanee” means “lost”) land of Sewanee was discovered by Indigenous people who reveled in the forests and caves and the dozens of springs and streams that crisscross these few thousand acres. Those same natural features would later bring other settlers to the plateau—and following the first settlers, the inevitable surveyors. By the late 1830s, Tennessee was abuzz with talk of coal, and land speculators began buying up hundreds of 5,000-acre tracts along the project route of a new railway, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.
In the course of surveying this land, three investors—Logan, Porter, Estill—purchased tracts that would eventually form part of the University’s Domain. These three tracts lay on the plateau in the form of an enormous ‘L’. The inside corner of this ‘L’ was the base point from which these tracts were laid out. That base point is about 100 feet from the Cross in the adjacent pine grove. This area was impressive—surveyors could see the eventual route of the railroad, look far away to the county seat in Winchester, and could look out across much of the Domain. The bluff here was easily cleared, and a wooden pole with a flag clearly indicated where the base point of the survey was located.
When these lands passed from Logan, Porter, and Estill to Samuel F. Tracy and eventually to the newly founded University, this flagpole site was quickly named “University View.” The next part of our story occurs on Oct. 10, 1860, when the Board of Trustees and a few hundred guests assembled to lay the University cornerstone. With both Masonic and Episcopal ritual, the massive marble block was placed and thereby gave the University a center that would be called “University Place.” Before the trustees adjourned that October meeting, George Fairbanks, Charles Barney, and other surveyors were already preparing a map for the anticipated college and town. Centered upon the cornerstone, they laid out a vast (and unrealistic) town plan that projected streets and avenues in every direction. Of critical importance, though, was the key avenue they laid out: a grand thoroughfare perhaps 200 feet wide meant to connect University Place with University View. This grand avenue was called University Avenue (now Tennessee Avenue) and the envisioned University would be laid out along this axis. So this was the fundamental ground plan: University Place, University Avenue, and University View.
That was the ground plan, but getting to Sewanee was another matter. By 1856 and for another century, access to Sewanee was largely by train—the Mountain Goat of the Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI) Railroad. Besides the railroad, there were several cart paths and stagecoach roads that converged in Sewanee—at least four of which originated in Cowan at the railroad junction. The Mountain Goat ran only once a day, often only pulling freight cars. Passengers sometimes rode in the freight cars or in the caboose. Eventually a single passenger car would be added as the University grew and more riders needed to get to Sewanee.
Besides the limited runs of the Mountain Goat, it was not always clear along the Nashville & Chattanooga route which junction would lead to Sewanee—until Vice-Chancellor Gorgas commissioned a painted sign (which cost $2) to be erected by the railroad in Cowan—a sign that effectively renamed Cowan as “Sewanee Junction.” It was at Sewanee Junction that a later vice-chancellor, Benjamin Finney, would arrive at 3 a.m. in the spring of 1922. Not wanting to wait five or six hours or longer for a caboose ride to Sewanee, Vice-Chancellor Finney decided, as many others had done, to walk the five miles or so to Sewanee.
At that time at least three good country roads led to Sewanee, one of which was an old stagecoach route that proceeded from Cowan through Miller Cove and directly up the slope to University View. After about three hours, Vice-Chancellor Finney was approaching the crest of the road just as the sun was rising behind the flagpole at University View. All of University Avenue was a golden backdrop to the flagpole. The scene touched the vice-chancellor instantly and, recalling the many losses of the Great World War, he determined that this beautiful and inspiring site should have a memorial cross to honor the Sewanee soldiers who had served in the Great War.
In those days, the first order of the day in the life of the University was Morning Prayer and the not-very-popular required chapel—monitored by professors and proctors alike. The vice-chancellor addressed the chapel group—assembled under the thick wooden beams of All Saints’ before the chapel was completed decades later—and told them of his walk, coming to University View at sunrise, and his vision of a memorial cross. The vision was contagious among students, faculty, Sewanee citizens, and trustees. Former Vice-Chancellor Sam Williamson tells the story best:
“On Armistice Day 1922 the entire Sewanee community met at University View to build the base of the cross to commemorate those in the community who had died during the First World War. The students of Sewanee Military Academy marched to the site from chapel to provide ceremony for the occasion. Everyone stopped work at eleven o’clock in the morning for three minutes of silence before resuming work. Mountaineers and students hauled rock, cleared land, and laid the stone steps. Women in the community provided a feast for everyone. Even children did what they could to help. The large concrete cross, designed by the engineering class, was erected over the next few months.”
We should note that among the members of the Sewanee community were University stonemasons who were also members of the Sewanee Summit Lodge of Freemasonry and who laid the foundation stones of the Cross with Masonic ritual. This was all the more important as a bond between the University and the community because many of the founders, nearly all of the early vice-chancellors, and many of the University administrators were also Freemasons. The building of the Cross was much more than an ecclesiastical symbol; it was also a symbol of the close relations of work and respect between those folks of University Place and the folks of Sewanee village.
The actual completion, following the construction of a preliminary wooden cross at the scale of the final cross, happened in the spring of 1923—making this the 100th anniversary of the completion of the War Memorial Cross. The Cross, along with All Saints’ Chapel and Breslin Tower, became an almost instant symbol of the University—and a wide attraction for visitors, especially families on Sunday afternoon drives. In time, other wars came and additional memorial plaques were inserted into the foundation steps of the Cross. These include memorials to persons from Sewanee and Franklin County who served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.
We cannot overestimate the importance of the Cross either in the life of the University or in the lives of many visitors who never set foot in All Saints’ or entered Breslin Tower. The Cross became an assembly point for student groups such as classes, fraternities and sororities, and even the Sewanee Outing Program. The old Sewanee Ski and Outing Club had a tradition of ending trips at the Cross to watch the sunset—and enjoy a cold keg of beer. “Keg at the Cross” became (for a while) a very popular event. Almost any casual visitor to the Cross will notice not only cars driving the circle around the Cross but aircraft overhead making a similar circle. The Cross has been the scene for many bridal photo shoots as well as alumni and local family reunions. Weddings have been conducted there, and the ashes of more than a few alums have been scattered there. Now 100 years old, the War Memorial Cross is an enduring symbol of the full life of the University, the Sewanee community, and friends far and wide.
Smith and Williamson closed their writing by saying: “The Cross is an excellent place to watch the sunset far beyond Winchester, and nearly every day people gather at dusk to watch the first stars appear and the glow of the clouds as the sun dips at the horizon. For the clear view to the southeast and south, the Cross is also a very good place to watch the moon rise over your left shoulder and then rise high above the valley below. Once upon a time perhaps the most unique event of all took place at the Cross: a proposal of marriage between a Sewanee man and woman. Of course, many proposals had occurred at the Cross—but what made this one truly unique was its timing. The young man had done his homework, invited the young lady to watch the eclipse of the full moon at the Cross—and at the peak of the eclipse darkness, he produced a ring and asked for her hand in marriage. They still tell that story.”
When this writer first saw the Cross I was reminded of the late Ben Haden’s words: “At the foot of the Cross we can all unite regardless of denomination.” Rev. Haden served as pastor of Chattanooga’s First Presbyterian Church for 31 years.
On this Memorial Day, 2023 may this Cross remind us freedom isn’t free and that thousands have paid the price with their life so we all can continue to enjoy our great country. God Bless America.