Travel Report: Chattanooga Nostalgia.
Written by the American composers Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, the song stands as a playful tribute to America’s Southern Railway network. And in particular the cross-country Tennessean Train from New York to Memphis via Chattanooga.
Featured in the 1941 musical movie Sun Valley Serenade, Chattanooga Choo Choo was a big hit, selling 1.2 million copies and becoming the world’s first gold record.
How I would’ve loved to roll into Chattanooga like that, reliving the romance of 1940s U.S. train travel. In contrast, my arrival took place via Interstate 24 in a car driven by my Tennessean friend Jon. In the back seats, windows rolled down, very much enjoying the sunny May afternoon, were my pals Steve P and Steve C from back home in England.
Following our adventures in Nashville and Memphis, we had just enough time for a flying overnight visit to Chattanooga. Literally just to soak up some of the old railroad nostalgia and do a bit of hiking. Despite my general apathy towards car travel, it did afford us a unique experience.
Indeed this was the only time I have switched time zones by land. We left Nashville on Central Daylight Time and moved into Eastern Daylight as we rolled into Marion County. In fact, so tickled were we by this that we jumped out for a photo on the way back to Nashville. Jon couldn’t work out what all the fuss was about.
I had of course been listening to Chattanooga Choo Choo over and over in the buildup to that Tennessee trip. Consequently, it felt only right that our merry band of four book into The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. It stands on the grounds of what was once Terminal Station, owned and operated by The Southern Railway.
Terminal Station opened in 1909 in order to better connect America’s north and south. Its debut service hooked Chattanooga up to Cincinatti in Ohio. Within twenty years it had become a major national hub with over fifty services a day. So grand was Terminal Station that a succession of presidents came to marvel at it, including Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“You leave the Pennsylvania station ’bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer
Than to have your ham ‘n’ eggs in Carolina”.
Unfortunately, America’s railroad industry slumped after the Second World War. By the 1960s passenger traffic had hit an all time low, eventually leading to Terminal Station’s closure in 1970. The old building was on the verge of being knocked down when, in 1973, a group of entrepreneurs stepped in to save the place.
Hoping to preserve its history, not to mention cash in on the enduring popularity of Chattanooga Choo Choo, they transformed the place into a hotel and entertainment complex. It has since gone through several owners and name changes. Today The Choo Choo offers visitors the chance to stay in converted vintage Pulman train cars.
Ornately designed, the cars date back to the 30s, 40s and 50s. Moreover, the hotel has standard rooms, deluxe suites and even a number of luxury apartments called Passenger Flats.
After checking in, we took a wander around the hotel grounds. Pleasingly, I was able to stroll down some of Terminal Station’s old platforms, complete with a short section of historic track.
A number of old trains stand on the line in testament to a bygone era. We also came across an old steam locomotive, beautifully decked out in a custom red and green Choo Choo design.
The tasteful Glenn Miller Gardens extend across a number of the tracks. I thought it was a nice touch that they named the gardens after the man who wrote the famous tune. And what a fine tribute it is, with trees, fountains, rosebushes, ponds and a gazebo.
Miller disappeared on December the 15th 1944 while flying over the English Channel from England to France. His body and indeed the plane wreckage were never found. He was 40.
Back in 2009 one of the trains served as a fancy restaurant called Dinner in the Diner. However, my online research tells me the eatery is long gone. From what I can see it was replaced by another train car restaurant called The Silver Diner, which has also gone the way of the dodo.
These days the Choo Choo complex is home to a number of restaurants, such as the highly rated Nic and Norman’s, co-owned by The Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus. Hopefully that’s not human flesh in those burgers.
That long ago night we were keen to leave the hotel and eat downtown. Our early evening amble finally led us to Big River Grille and Brewing Works, a Southwestern restaurant and craft beer bar on Broad Street.
If memory serves me well there were Beef Nachos and Chicken Wings on the table that night. Furthermore, Steve C and I each went for the Craft Beer Platter. I recall the waiter explaining that each beer was made onsite by the house brewer. A look at their website tells me this is still the case.
I was still feeling the effects of those beers the following morning when we set off for Lookout Mountain. Situated along the southeastern Tennessee state line, the northeast corner of Alabama and the northwest corner of Georgia, the mountain certainly enjoys a special location.
It was a fine day as we began our hike. And it didn’t take long for impressive views to open up in all directions. At 728 meters tall and with its strategic position between the four states, Lookout Mountain has seen more than its fair share of American history.
On November the 24th, 1863, a key moment in The American Civil War unfolded here. This is when Union forces, led by Major General Joseph Hooker, assaulted the mountain and defeated Major General Carter L. Stevenson‘s Confederate army.
The clash became known as The Battle of Lookout Mountain, which paved the way for Hooker’s men to assist in another Union victory at The Battle of Missionary Ridge. Which in turn opened the gateway into the Deep South.
Civil War enthusiasts can come and learn more at the Battles for Chattanooga Museum. Looking back, I wish we’d popped in. Rather, we pressed on with our hike through Rock City, a network of rock trails, woodland paths and hanging bridges. There was a cutesy, family-fun oriented trail, Gnomes Overpass, and a narrow passage set between two humongous rocks called Needle’s Eye.
But these were mere warm up acts for the breathtaking sight of Lover’s Leap and its magnificent waterfall. The platform’s name comes from the legend of two young Cherokee lovers who hailed from feuding tribes.
When young Sautee fell in love with a beautiful maiden, Nacoochee, all hell broke loose between their respective families. According to legend, the doomed lovebirds fled to the mountain for refuge but were soon captured.
And it was poor old Sautee who paid the price when his captors threw him off Lover’s Leap. It’s a familiar story and one that I’ve heard in several formats during my global wanderings. For another example, check out my travel report from the Spanish city of Antequera.
Competing with Lover’s Leap for Lookout Mountain’s premier wow moment is the equally majestic Ruby Falls. Accidentally discovered in 1928, this is the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in The U.S. It was fun taking the glass-front elevator down to the cavern trail that leads to the falls. The man who found them, Leo Lambert, named the site after his wife Ruby.
We’d been hiking for most of the day when we came across The Incline Railway. Yup, this was definitely the way to go for getting back down to the city. Today’s incline dates back to 1895 when it operated with giant coal-burning steam engines. The cars meanwhile were made of wood.
By 1911 The Incline had switched to electric power, while today it uses 100 horsepower motors to run the massive drums that operate the cable. Those cables come from the same company that supplied materials for Brooklyn Bridge. They say a number of celebrities have ridden The Incline, including Elizabeth Taylor, who visited Chattanooga in the mid 1950s.
With trains departing every twenty minutes, we didn’t have to wait long to experience The Incline for ourselves. Humming down at a gentle ten miles per hour, there was plenty of time to enjoy the views across The Tennessee Valley.
Oh what an all-too-brief visit it was to Chattanooga. Before driving back to Nashville, we managed to squeeze in an hour at The Tennessee Aquarium. Opened in 1992, it is home to over 12000 animals from across 800 species.
In addition to all the expected sharks and dolphins, they have a large butterfly garden and an aviary home to a gorgeous family of Hyacinth Macaws.
Elsewhere, an IMAX theater takes visitors on adventures across the globe. And there are special exhibits on The Turtles of the World and The North American Sea Otter. Chattanooga is definitely a city I’d like to see more of one day. A perfect little stopover I’d say on the way to Atlanta and New Orleans.
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
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