Chattanooga — beyond the choo choo

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Glenda C. Booth

The Tennessee Aquarium attracts more than 700,000 visitors each year. It houses not just thousands of fish, but penguins, owls, frogs and butterflies as well.
Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga CVB

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln asserted, “If we can take and hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the Rebellion must dwindle and die.” He saw the region as crucial to a Union victory because of the fertile fields that fed soldiers, the Tennessee River that moved them, and four radiating railroad lines that transported supplies.

People today are still “taking” the Chattanooga area — taking in many offerings indoors and out. There’s history, art, music, good food, nature and more.

The town was made famous by the hit song, “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” when Glenn Miller’s swing band recording became the nation’s number one song on December 7, 1941. (It remained atop the charts for nine weeks.)

Chattanooga is the birthplace of blues queen Bessie Smith. And baseball great Willie Mays played with the Chattanooga ChooChoos at age 16.

The city, which sits at Tennessee’s border with Georgia, is a place where you can go from eating grits and black-eyed peas to sipping freshly-roasted, whiskey-barrel-aged coffee, or from a leisurely river cruise on the Southern Belle serenaded by the “Tennessee Waltz” to a high-octane bluegrass festival.

You can eat fried green tomatoes and sweet tea glazed chicken at one meal, and upscale cuisine like wild boar ragù at the next. You can study a rare, 1947 “bubblehead” tow truck in one museum and move to a Wilhem de Kooning painting in another.

A city transformed

In 1969, television newscaster Walter Cronkite dubbed the then-smokestack town of Chattanooga “America’s dirtiest city.” The Tennessee River was an industrial sewer of lead and heavy metals.

Cronkite’s label sparked a renaissance, symbolized by the popular, riverfront aquarium that is the largest in the Southeast, and the free electric shuttle chugging through a bustling downtown.

Chattanooga’s slogan is now “A Great City by Nature.” The city of about 175,000 sits on the Tennessee River’s banks in a geologic bowl surrounded by mountains. Outside magazine twice named it the “best town ever.”

Lookout Mountain at 2,388 feet looms nearby. The area has over 10,000 caves — the greatest concentration of caves in the U.S. The river is home to over 300 species of fish that support bald eagles and ospreys. 

Tennessee is the “epicenter of aquatic diversity,” said aquatic biologist Bernie Kuhajda. “The critters are what make Chattanooga really special.” It’s even known as the “salamander capital of the world,” harboring 11 percent of the world’s salamanders.

Under the sea

The 190,000-square-foot Tennessee Aquarium is downtown’s centerpiece, topped by six triangular glass points that dominate the skyline. In its Imax theater, the 66-by-89-foot screen and 3D viewing make fish seemingly nip at your nose.

The River Journey exhibit traces a raindrop falling in the Appalachian Mountains as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. In the Ocean Journey building, marine invertebrates squiggle, and gentoo and macaroni penguins dive and dart through the water.

Other intriguing critters from around the world include leucistic alligators (white with a “toupé” of dark spots), hyacinth macaws, six-foot-wide Australian whiptail stingrays, and spindly pipefish that coil their tails around underwater grasses.

The award-winning Bluff View Art District weaves together art galleries, outdoor sculpture, gourmet cuisine, B&Bs and nature into a cohesive whole.

The Hunter Museum showcases American art from 1730 to the present, including artists like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Edward Moran. There’s also 20th century art, including works by Andrew Wyeth, N.C. Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and abstract expressionist Wilhem de Kooning.

The International Towing and Recovery Museum honors people of the vehicle towing industry with tow trucks dating to 1916. It traces the industry’s history, starting with the first wrecker ever fabricated by Ernest Holmes, a local mechanic, who bolted a bed onto a Cadillac chassis and cab. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of toy tow trucks.

Feisty women

Chattanooga has spawned some intriguing women.

For “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith, music was her ticket out of poverty. Born in a shack around 1894, she started out singing on street corners for nickels and dimes, and later, “drank, swore and brawled with the toughest of them,” recalls a poster in the Bessie Smith Cultural Center dedicated to her.

“The blues is a feeling,” one exhibit notes, and Bessie lived it. She sang about pain, sorrow, joy, despair and comfort.

Exhibits also explore the contributions of local African-Americans. Early 20th century posters remind visitors of unfortunate stereotypes. Aunt Jemima’s pancakes: “Sho hits the spot!” touts one.

Then there’s “Antique Annie,” Anna Safley Houston, who amassed one of the finest collections of antique glass, porcelain and pottery in the world, now filling the Houston Museum of Decorative Arts in Chattanooga. Called a “genius,” an “enterprising business woman,” and an “eccentric,” Houston built a ramshackle, tarpaper barn herself to store her “pretties.”

She had nine or 10 husbands, perhaps setting the world record at that time, and suffered deprivation rather than relinquish her collection. The museum has 10,000 glass pieces, including pitchers, cruets, vases, baskets, bottles and beer mugs.

The Trail of Tears

Several sites in the region memorialize the Trail of Tears — the 1838 forced removal of native peoples ordered by President Andrew Jackson. In all, about 4,000 Cherokees died.

The Passage waterscape in Chattanooga leads down to Ross’s Landing, where over 3,000 Cherokees were sent downriver by boat.

“This is our national story, an emotional story that has to be told,” said Melissa Woody, Cleveland (Tenn.) Chamber of Commerce vice president.

Red Clay State Historic Area ranger Jamie Russell, a Cherokee, stresses, “We were a distinct nation that once controlled 40,000 square miles.” Today’s park was the site of the tribe’s council, or capital.

Blue Hole Spring and an eternal flame invoke reflection on one of America’s darkest chapters. The flame burns because the involuntary evacuees took embers with them and believed that as long as the embers burned, the Cherokees would survive.

The Hiwassee Heritage Center in Charleston presents both the native peoples’ and the U.S. military’s perspectives (The U.S. Government called the 23 internment camps “emigration depots.”) A monument at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park at Blythe’s Ferry, where the evictees crossed the river, lists the names of those removed, including Bullfrog, Big Hoe and Young Duck.

The Chicamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park tells the story of the Confederates’ 1863 victory at Chickamauga and their loss a few months later when Union forces won control of Chattanooga in a Civil War battle known as the “Death Knell of the Confederacy.” Authorized by Congress in 1890, this was the nation’s first national military park.

Beyond Chattanooga

The greater Chattanooga area offers hiking, hang gliding, fishing, canoeing and scenic cruises. Lookout Mountain is a popular spot from which you can see seven states on a clear day.

Ruby Falls, located inside Lookout Mountain, is — at 145 feet — the world’s highest underground waterfall open to the public.
Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga CVB

Amateur spelunkers can walk almost a mile inside the mountain to see the 145-foot Ruby Falls. It is the world’s highest underground waterfall open to the public.

Into trains? Year-round excursions on working steam-powered trains start at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. “They are faster than horses,” quipped Tim Andrews, president.

A former mayor called Chattanooga “Nowheresville,” complaining that you could smell it and taste it before you arrive. Today, Chattanooga is a happening town, with food, fun and features for all tastes.

Chattanooga eats

Speaking of which, for a southern mix of food and fellowship, try the Soul Food Express, where locals gossip under spinning fans and snarf up fried chicken, catfish, fried corn, pinto beans, and macaroni and cheese. At another long-established soul food spot, Memo’s, the motto is, “It’s all about the dollar and not the color,” in reference to its history of serving customers of any race.

The 212 Market’s fried green tomatoes, grits, and black-eyed pea-and-kale salad stand out. Sugar’s Ribs specializes in finger-licking barbecue and sides like okra, corn on the cob, and scrumptious banana pudding.

At festivals, you might get Tennessee stump dogs — hotdogs cooked on charcoal inside a hollow stump. Don’t forget moonpies, a local snack. And very sweet tea is served with everything.

To learn more about attractions and lodging, visit

The Beaux-Arts Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel, in the 1909 restored train station, offers antique Pullman rail car rooms. Rooms start at $155 a night. See or call (423) 266-5000 for more information.

American Airlines has the most (and least expensive) flights to Chattanooga, starting at about $325 roundtrip from Dulles and BWI. Delta Airlines offers flights from about $340 from Reagan National Airport.