Though state officials are pushing forward with plans to build a new mental health hospital on Moccasin Bend, a new archeological study may halt construction and help regain various pockmarks of “non-compatible” development within Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District, according to Mickey Robbins, a member of the local National Park Partners board of directors.
Mr. Robbins spoke to the Civitan Club on Friday.
“We’re thinking the archaeological findings are going to be a graceful way out for everybody,” said Mr. Robbins, who envisions “full first-class National Park” status at Moccasin Bend.
Mr. Robbins and Park Partners are asking the Chattanooga community and Native American groups to raise their voices to preserve and honor the peninsula’s kinship with Native American history and Civil War history, as well as its 12,000-year archaeological history.
“Sometimes you have to rise up,” Mr. Robbins said.
In mid-September the State Building Commission and the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services announced they will keep the hospital at Moccasin Bend, choosing it over 40 competing sites. The groups had the support of local state representatives.
An archaeological study of the new building site and new access road are an early stage of the state’s building plan.
NPP has met with archaeologists Jay Mills, Lawrence Alexander and Brooke Persons to interpret findings from the last area excavation in 1986 and to project what a deeper study would find.
“We know this place is packed with village sites,” Mr. Robbins said. “There’s no way you can get around it.”
“The state is going to hire its own archaeological team but we’re going to try to watch it like a hawk,” he said.
Mr. Robbins said a fully vested peninsula and park could offer access by water taxi to trails, Civil War ranger talks, outdoor dramas about Native American life, and Trail of Tears and Underground Railroad interpretive walks.
The 750-acre National Archaeological District is one of six parts of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, the country’s first national military park. It was established in 1890 before Gettysburg National Military Park and before the National Park Service.
In this way it was destined from the start to set a precedent for the future of military parks, the speaker said.
The District was established in 2003 as a unique unit of the military park. The drafter of the legislation, former Congressman Zach Wamp, said the peninsula’s site amid mountain, river and valley has made it irresistible to civilization for thousands of years. Earliest remnants date from the Paleo-Indian Period of 10,000, B.C., to burial mounds from the Woodland era, settlement by Creek and Cherokee tribes, and then a key crossroads for the Trail of Tears, Underground Railroad and Civil War.
Mr. Robbins said that Mr. Wamp continues to actively support Moccasin Bend’s whole inclusion into the park.
But he said NPP can’t look to the National Parks Service for help, yet.
“The National Parks Service can’t really get down and dirty,” he said.
Moccasin Bend was designated a national historic landmark in 1986, but the site was already disturbed with the 1961 hospital building, a wastewater treatment plant, a police shooting range and a golf course.
Ret. Col. Ben Benford, a Civitan member, told the group that keeping the mental hospital at Moccasin Bend aligns with the tradition of keeping the mentally ill removed from society, of thinking that patients are “just one more big problem,” he said. He said the tradition is born of fear and that it is becoming outdated.
“I think that’s a miss,” Mr. Benford said.
“Patients out there are in a very isolated setting,” Mr. Robbins said. Without public transportation on the peninsula, many patients’ families cannot visit, he said.
An urban setting will give patients a modern synergy with surrounding healthcare facilities, he said.
Mental health institutes in Knoxville, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio, have chosen to build new facilities in town, he said. Knoxville’s Lakeshore facility became a parks and recreation office in 2019.
“The trend is not to go back out in the country,” Mr. Robbins said.
Though the Moccasin Bend property is a beautiful setting, he said, in-town designs include courtyards and views of the river. He said the $287 million-project can afford $5 million for new property. Other circulating ideas have included the Erlanger North property and Engel Stadium property.
Mr. Robbins lamented a 1950 attempt to establish an 800-acre Moccasin Bend National Park, approved by President Harry Truman and then blocked by state governor Frank Clement in 1953.
Mr. Robbins dubbed the peninsula’s next era “the void of subsequent years.”
Mr. Robbins is the founding president of Friends of Moccasin Bend National Park, which became National Park Partners. Mr. Robbins served on Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute board of directors for several years and served two years as chairman.
For more information and to find a form letter to send to elected officials, visit the National Park Partners website: nppcha.org.