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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Chattanooga skyline.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Cover photo courtesy of Imilious.

May 2009. “Woo, woo, Chattanooga, there you are! There’s gonna be a certain party at the station!” And so goes the 1941 big band swing tune Chattanooga Choo Choo by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra.

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.

Glenn Miller and his Orchestra.

Chattanooga Nostalgia: Glenn Miller and his Orchestra.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Driving from Nashville to Chattanooga

On the road in Tennessee.

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.

Entering Central Time Zone Chattanooga Tennessee

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia The Old Terminal Station

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Photo courtesy of Ɱ.

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”. 

Terminal Station in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Pulman Train Car room Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel.

A vintage Pulman train car at The Choo Choo.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Chattanooga Nostalgia Restored Choo Choo railway car

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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 Chattanooga Choo Choo at the former Terminal Station

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Glenn Miller Gardens Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Choo Choo Dinner in the Diner

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Big River.

Big River Grille and Brewing Works.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia Climbing Lookout Mountain

Chattanooga Nostalgia: Lookout Mountain.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia Eagle Statue Lookout Mountain

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Battle of Lookout Mountain November 24th 1863

The Battle of Lookout Mountain.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Hiking Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia Needle's Eye Lookout Mountain

Chattanooga Nostalgia: Rock City.

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.

Lover's Leap Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Nostalgia: Lover’s Leap.

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.

Rock City in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Lookout Mountain.

Ruby Falls Lookout Mountain Chattanooga

Chattanooga Nostalgia: Ruby Falls.

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.

The Incline Railway Chattanooga.

Chattanooga Nostalgia: The Incline Railway.

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.

Incline Railway Chattanooga Tennessee

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia Ride the Incline Railway

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

Descending Lookout Mountain on The Incline Railway

Down she goes.

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.

Chattanooga Nostalgia Tennessee Aquarium

Chattanooga Nostalgia: The Tennessee Aquarium.

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.

Visit The Tennessee Aquarium.

Chattanooga Nostalgia.

For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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29 Comments

  • elizawrites

    How fun! I am from East TN. Did you visit Knoxville by chance? I notice you have several posts about TN these days.

    July 1, 2021 - 8:32 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Eliza, sadly I didn’t get to Knoxville. “Next time” and all that. If I ever get back I’d love to do some hiking in The Smokies and maybe catch the ‘Last Train to Clarksville’.

      July 1, 2021 - 8:35 am Reply
      • elizawrites

        AHHH yes, if you do get a chance, go to the Smokies. They are wonderful and one of my favorite places to hike on this planet.

        July 1, 2021 - 8:38 am
  • Streets of Nuremberg

    Great post! And great photography! It is about 30 years we have been to Chattanooga! Brings back some fond memories!
    Marcus

    July 1, 2021 - 9:22 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Aw, thank you so much. The photography compliment means a lot coming from you, though really these photos were pretty crappy and needed a lot of editing to get them up to “passable” territory. Glad to have reminded you of happy times in Chattanooga.

      July 1, 2021 - 9:24 am Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    What a wonderful post Leighton and how I’d love to spend a night at the Choo Choo hotel in one of those converted carriages. I’d also like to ride on that Incline Railway too. There’s something about Glenn Miller music that’s so uplifting isn’t there! Marion

    July 1, 2021 - 12:36 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers Marion, it’s a lovely, underrated corner of The States. I’m glad I got to see it, even if just briefly.

      July 1, 2021 - 1:27 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Interesting post Leighton. Certainly, a lot of info on Chattanooga I never knew. We all loved singing the song whenever we heard it as kids or at least the parody version of “Pardon Me Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes”?. The Choo Choo hotel looks like an interesting place to stay. I’m a big railway fan, not an easy thing to be in Canada. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    July 1, 2021 - 1:26 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Allan. Rail travel has always been my favourite way of getting around, so I found the whole choo choo thing really charming. I’m about to go and look up ‘Pardon me Roy…’. Thanks for reading!

      July 1, 2021 - 1:57 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Loved this post! It was so fun to see so many places that I’ve visited recently and read your take on them. We visited the Choo choo in January and they still had all their festive flair up. I really like that they preserved the train station and have recreated it to be such a hot spot of town. And we really enjoyed Rock City with all the quirky walkways. We haven’t done the Incline or Ruby Falls yet but they are on our list. Great post of such a fun city 🙂

    July 1, 2021 - 3:27 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Guess you have two solid reasons to go back to Lookout Mountain! Thanks for reading Meg, and for your kind words.

      July 1, 2021 - 3:42 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Ahhh happy memories! We didn’t even visit the Choo Choo when we went; until my Dad told me once we’d got home, I had no idea it was even a thing! I’d never even heard of the song!! I love the hotel though, looks really unique.

    July 1, 2021 - 4:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Han, between the mountain and the train stuff, Chattanooga is definitely worth a visit. Thanks for reading! Your Lookout Mountain photos are just amazing.

      July 1, 2021 - 5:11 pm Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    I love the name … Chattanooga … even sounds like a fun place! And what a beautiful hotel! Like the looks of the old steam locomotive and great views at Lover’s Leap and Ruby Falls. I know you’ve taken these photos many years ago, but you’ve certainly done a great job! Great post Leighton!

    July 1, 2021 - 4:56 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you very much. I’m glad people are responding so positively to this little pocket of America. The photos were a lot of work, so I appreciate that.

      July 1, 2021 - 5:13 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Wow, Lookout Mountain and Ruby Falls alone would be worth the trip. I had never travelled by train much until we visited Europe where I fell in love with it. Sadly American train travel is not a comfortable experience. Enjoyed the tribute to the great Glenn Miller (who was born in Iowa) though he disappeared in 1944.

    July 1, 2021 - 5:48 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Glad you enjoyed this piece Memo. I did enjoy the fact that Miller was from Iowa and indeed I had to look up Clarinda to see where it was. Thanks for pointing out the date discrepancy, it was a typo. Probably the fact that he died at 40 tripping me up earlier in the sentence. Choo Choo!

      July 1, 2021 - 6:30 pm Reply
  • Rebecca

    I’ve heard of Chattanooga only due to knowing a blogger from that part of Tennessee. Looks like it’s more of an industrial place, but still offers plenty of hidden gems and things to do. I’m impressed that you had such an extensive visit of Tennessee– more than what I’ve done, really (i.e. I’ve never been to Tennessee, haha)! Keep the travel reports of the US coming!

    July 2, 2021 - 5:34 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Aw thanks Rebecca, Chattanooga is an unusual destination I guess for a foreign visitor. But I do love these more off the beaten track cities. I think if I ever do an extended period of cross country travel in The U.S. I’d like to seek out the Chattanoogas of each state I visit. It’s a bit more intimate if that makes any sense. Three more America installments on the way…

      July 2, 2021 - 8:38 am Reply
  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    You can’t beat a bit of railway history, or indeed rail travel for that matter. My whole family worked for the railway before my generation (parents aunts uncles grandparents) so rail travel still holds a fascination for me to this day. However, I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know that Chatanooga was a real place with real rail history- I thought it was just Glenn Miller being nicely alliterative!

    July 3, 2021 - 10:24 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah that’s cool, glad to have brought you a new location. The city struck me as an ideal place to live in many ways. Small enough to feel sleepy, large enough to have everything you need. Big old mountain on your doorstep, a fine river and a unique slab of American history binding everything together. Thanks for reading and getting in touch!

      July 3, 2021 - 10:35 am Reply
  • rkrontheroad

    Although I’ve driven through those mid-southern U.S. states, I never stopped to explore, just a little mountain hiking. It’s always best to have a local guide/friend. The references to the choo-choo are great – I could hear the song in my head! And I was surprised to see the luxury of the high-end Pullman car.

    July 3, 2021 - 7:28 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Ruth, great to hear from you! It continues to surprise me how many people know and are charmed by that song. Loved the Chattanooga hike but looking back, I really should have found some time for The Smokies.

      July 3, 2021 - 7:33 pm Reply
  • Lookoom

    Another well written and researched article, I can imagine the time it took. Thanks for this.

    July 4, 2021 - 3:22 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, these pieces typically take me 2-3 days, on and off. Its a bit too much I think, ha.

      July 4, 2021 - 9:03 am Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    You made the most of your time in Chattanooga and visited some fun places. I think I would like Lookout Mountain best. Two time zones in one state complicates things. The Chattanooga Choo Choo song is an example of how racism infused culture in the USA. You wouldn’t know but “Boy” refers to a Black man who in this case shines the shoes of whites for a living. Black men were called boys to underscore their inferior status. Everyone who sings the song repeats a racist insult. I did it too back in the day.

    July 8, 2021 - 5:26 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for this insight John, I appreciate that. It certainly makes me look at the song in a new light.

      July 8, 2021 - 6:38 pm Reply
      • salsaworldtraveler

        Racism infects even those who we’d not consider to be racist in the classical sense. Casablanca is an outstanding movie, but it also uses the term. You may remember that Ilsa walks into Rick’s and asks about the “boy” playing the piano referring to Sam, the adult Black man. Boy, really? Ilsa is no card carrying KKK member but she uses the term freely indicating her comfort with the idea of his inferiority. She might as well have used the N word.

        July 8, 2021 - 8:09 pm

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