John Shearer: Exploring And Searching For Greenways, Part 41 – Discovering The Chattanooga Creek Watershed

  • Friday, May 26, 2023
  • John Shearer

After seeing the announcement about a litter boom being unveiled Tuesday on Chattanooga Creek near where the Tennessee Riverwalk crosses it 100 yards off St. Elmo Avenue, I attended the ceremony and interviewed a few officials, including Mayor Tim Kelly.

I will include their comments at the end of this story regarding the event already covered well in the local media, including by Hannah Campbell with But the installation of this plastic-type rope to stop trash before it enters the Tennessee River and which officials hope helps them find the source or sources of the litter did start me thinking in larger terms about Chattanooga Creek.

Particularly, I wondered where all it flows through Chattanooga, and if any other current or potential greenway opportunities exist around it other than at the Riverwalk. So, with the help of a map on my computer I perused beforehand, I decided to check it out on Wednesday.

While going down the section of it through South Chattanooga in a canoe or kayak would be fascinating, and that might be fun sometime despite its low setting at places that allows primarily views of only the trees and maybe snakes on the creek bank, I tried to follow it via automobile.

And that is certainly an unusual way to do it and very challenging, as there seemed to be no spot in the area I went where one can drive along the creek for a good distance. In most places, the road simply crosses over it, or the creek is located a good distance away from a road or is hidden.

As a result, Chattanooga Creek seems to be much more the shier and more inconspicuous major creek in Chattanooga, with North and South Chickamauga Creeks more visible and more regularly used for recreation in places. Or at least they are easier to see. And Lookout Creek has the distinction of being a border of the popular and beloved local green space, Reflection Riding.

But just driving around in my Honda Accord and looking for glimpses of Chattanooga Creek was a fascinating experience, as this longtime resident once again saw parts of Chattanooga I had never seen before. The creek in Chattanooga runs primarily from the southeast edge of St. Elmo over to Alton Park and Piney Woods, goes in a northerly direction for a period, and then moves westwardly to the Tennessee River through the South Broad Street area. It apparently originates by the side of Lookout Mountain and runs up through North Georgia before reaching the state line.

As I traveled around in my car looking for pre-scouted glimpses of the creek, I saw countless modest homes in this lower-income part of Chattanooga. I also noticed a few light-industrial or other similar places where items might be made or at least where a few workers will get their hands dirty. Some of the businesses like Astec had familiar names, but most of them seemed to be smaller businesses with names I did not recognize, although the owners likely enjoy a good living through their efforts as industrial-focused entrepreneurs.

These buildings and homes were not what I would call pretty sights collectively from an architectural viewpoint, although I did surprisingly find several historic structures that jumped out at me as interesting to see.

But what did inspire me was that I saw some undeveloped low areas, some of which might be part of some industrial past and compromised environmentally in some way, but they still looked like they might make great future greenway spaces.

Of course, Chattanooga Creek was mistreated over the years like a poor stepchild and suffered damage from pollution and contamination when the city was more focused on industrial production. As a result, environmental steps have been taken in recent decades to clean it up, although it is not perfect.

As officials said at the event, you can play and paddle in the creek but don’t drink the water.

Looking forward to viewing as much of the creek as I could and feeling a little like a tourist since this area was largely new to me, I left my home near Northgate Mall about 2 p.m. on Wednesday. I got on Corridor J/U.S. 27 by Morrison Springs Road and then zipped through town and exited at the Lookout Mountain exit.

I ended up going to the lower end of St. Elmo through Tennessee Avenue past 55th Street and veered left at Lee Avenue, stopping a short distance away where Burnt Mill Road intersects and where a bridge sits over the creek.

I pulled off on a side area a few feet beyond the bridge on this lightly traveled Burnt Mill Road and got out, walked up to the bridge, and took a photo. Here the creek was not as low below the road as it is at the Tennessee Riverwalk.

I then went back to 55th Street and began heading east toward Alton Park, realizing the road becomes Slayton Avenue. I was not sure where I was headed next, and at one point was behind a Chattanooga Police car, which I guess is better than having one behind you.

My car eventually found its way to the corner of Central Avenue and Halsey Street, where I saw a very interesting looking and colorful building at the corner with a sign that said Neighborhood Grocery. To me, it was fascinating that I had lived in Chattanooga for so long and had never been here.

I somehow eventually ended up on Wilson Street, once again behind the police car, and noticed a residential community on the right of public housing buildings in the old-fashioned style of architecture. On my left was a large area of open grassy space that I again thought might make an interesting greenway, but it seemed to be fenced off and I saw a couple of signs referencing the word “disposal.” I also at some point around this area looked in one direction and saw a giant field of abandoned and junked cars, like I used to see off Signal Mountain Boulevard where the Walmart now is.

Wilson Road eventually ran into Workman Road, so I went back and forth here and noticed a beautiful old red-bricked and multi-story industrial building that had Southern Spear written on it. I had never heard of that ironworks business, but the historic building was beautiful compared to the countless ones made from metal siding at numerous other places in this part of town.

I knew Workman Road crossed Chattanooga Creek at some point, but since I saw a giant and also-pretty open field with a few trees on the north side of the road, I stopped near there, where some kind of paved walking trailhead was.

It looked like a greenway path despite the fact I could not find a single sign saying what it was. But since it did not say “no trespassing,” I did what any good explorer would do. I got out of my car and started walking down it, and the area was nice and calming.

But since I did not find anything after a couple hundred yards and I was not completely sure this was a public area, I turned around and walked back to my car. I realized later from looking at a map that I was probably pretty near the creek, and that the waterway crossed Workman Road just a little east of where I was.

It also crossed Hooker Road near the Georgia state line farther south of where I was and had been, and it appeared as if a big open space was there, but I by now was moving closer to the creek’s eventual destination of the Tennessee River.

I then went on Dorris Street past the Southern Spear building and passed an interesting old brick church on the right before turning right onto East 38th Street. I saw the bridge over the then-north-traveling creek and pulled off to take a picture and say hello to my new liquid friend.

By then the creek was sitting a little farther below street level than it had been by Burnt Mill Road on the southern end of St. Elmo when I last saw the elusive blueway.

Somewhere not far beyond here, the creek eventually moves more westerly and crosses under South Market Street below Howard High and then South Broad Street where the elevated viaduct is. It then goes under the nice Tennessee Riverwalk bridge before emptying into the Tennessee River where the curve of Interstate 24 is opposite Moccasin Bend.

The Riverwalk was the last place I met it. I looked back at the litter boom and instead of a lot of bottles and cans as seemed to be the case the day before, it appeared to be a lot of brown-colored silt or film or even sawdust and small sticks of some sort caught by the plastic rope.

I had hoped to go see where it went into the Tennessee River as some sort of celebratory observation full of personal excitement, pomp, and circumstance. But after driving through a couple of side streets off St. Elmo Avenue and even along part of Cummings Highway, I could not find anything.

Only when I got back home did I realize it went under the freeway into the river. So, I will have to wait until the next time I am traveling west on I-24 and perhaps stuck in an infamous traffic jam there to see it up close.

But on one of the side roads off St. Elmo Avenue – Mountain View Court – I did stumble upon an interesting small development of likely decades-old homes simply made of painted cement blocks on the outside. I had never noticed them before and realized that street might make an interesting story for the future.

I drove on back home to the Hixson area and arrived just under two hours after I had left. But I felt like I had been on quite a journey of discovery, even though I saw only glimpses of Chattanooga Creek in this flat area of town.

For some reason, though, I kept thinking for a day or two after Wednesday’s drive that I still had not seen maybe all of Chattanooga Creek in Chattanooga and that maybe there were some other potential greenway areas in this area of collectively forgotten Chattanooga.

So, I went back down in that area late Friday morning. I also wanted to get some better pictures or even pictures of two or three of the older buildings I had passed. It turned out that the lime-green and two-story Neighborhood Grocery had friendly-looking people standing in front of it, as did the World Restoration Center church on Dorris Street near Workman Road. As a result, I did not take photos of either one, despite the fact they probably would not have cared.

But I did find some other interesting potential greenway sites worth photographing and that I had missed on Wednesday. I went back down Wilson Road and realized the public housing facility was the Wheeler Homes complex. Down where the floodplain areas are near the state line below that had a few houses and maybe some small farm-like space, but the Walker County line was just past the creek and bridge.

As a result, I could not tell if the area would make a good greenway. I could also not find any small lakes I had seen on the maps, but they were probably out there somewhere.

I then drove back up Wilson Road, ended up heading north on Central Avenue and found a new development on the west side under construction. It looked more like some of the trendier apartment-style projects being built closer to Broad Street. I am not sure if upper scale development is creeping that way or not, or if it was some other kind of project.

Throughout all this, I could see Lookout Mountain looming largely off to the not-too-distant west and could feel a strong sense of contrast with the lowland area both geographically and perhaps in other ways, too.

After getting a photo of the Southern Spear building, I went back down Workman Road and found where the creek crosses it, the place I had missed earlier. It looked just like the other places where you almost do not realize you are crossing a creek because it is so obscured from view.

But I did see some wooded land around there that might make good greenway or park space.

I also went back briefly to Wilson Road from Workman and turned left and passed the nice-looking and mid-century former Piney Woods Elementary, now closed. But a nice little park was next to it, and a baseball field was across the street by the Wheeler Homes.

And there on the bridge of pothole-laden Hooker Road was a little more interesting view of Chattanooga Creek. Not only that, but a rusting and ancient bridge of some sort was standing there right next to it. That was a pleasant surprise.

I then made my way north in a roundabout way and ended up on 38th Street. After driving down it a little to the east, I saw a Charter real estate sign about some property available on the north side of the street not too far from -- but not right next to -- the creek. After something about it caught my eye, I stopped there, peaked at it from the gate and saw a nice field of about 10 acres or so.

That was the good potential park space I had been looking for, I thought to myself, knowing others might have entirely different plans for the land.

Feeling better that I had found a couple of interesting places that I had missed on Wednesday and thinking I had more completely seen the local watershed of that creek, I headed back home. This time I went via Alton Park Boulevard and over the arched bridge over Chattanooga Creek where the road becomes Market Street just south of Howard High.

I simply gave a proverbial wave as I headed back into the much more familiar parts of Chattanooga, thankful for both of my visually enriching journeys into South Chattanooga east of St. Elmo.

* * *

After the Tuesday unveiling of the litter boom, Mary Beth Sutton of the local non-profit WaterWays, which tries to bring awareness and stewardship of the area waterways, discussed Chattanooga Creek along with Mayor Tim Kelly. She talked about how the litter boom will be helpful in keeping the waterway clean and how Chattanooga Creek is actually home to plenty of wildlife. Mayor Kelly, meanwhile, mentioned how important this cleanup work is and praised the efforts of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, too, in also aiding the cleanup of area waters.

To listen to their brief comments, Click here.

Also, City Council Chairman Raquetta Dotley, whose District 7 covers a large part of the Chattanooga Creek watershed area within Chattanooga, said that anytime a waterway is cleaned up from litter pollution, a positive can result. She also said the litter boom will aid in Chattanooga maintaining its reputation as a place for greenspace and recreation.

To hear her short comments, Click here.

* * *

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

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