Driving into Chattanooga from any direction exposes you to an endless number of billboards boasting of Rock City, Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain. I feared a town of kitsch. But our first visit to Chattanooga surprised both my husband and me with its lovely setting on the Tennessee River bordered by the Appalachian Mountains. It boasts a history that includes a geological wonder, Native Americans, the Civil War, development of the railroads and a hit song that can rotate endlessly in your head if you let it.
As with many towns and states, Chattanooga’s name originated from Native Americans. The Creek words, Chat-to-to-noog-gee, meaning rock rising to a point, was very appropriate for nearby Lookout Mountain. During the Civil War, the mountain top gave the Confederate Army unobstructed views of the valley below revealing a large Union presence. The leaders knew they had a fight on their hands. A whole slew of generals and majors on both sides fought in and around the mountain. The Chattanooga battle is considered one of the three most important ones that turned the tide in favor of the North giving them control of the railroads. Today, a beautiful drive takes you to the top of Lookout Mountain for the same wide view of the valley below. Nearby are hiking trails where you can visualize Confederate Soldiers dug in and Union Soldiers attacking.
Flooding problems for Chattanooga were resolved with the construction of 29 dams by the Tennessee River Authority. Visionary city leaders have restored and improved the downtown historic area and provided walking paths on either side of the now tame river. When we brought our grandchildren, we walked the Walnut Street Bridge originally used by trains. Now available only for pedestrians and bikers, it leads to a park with a wonderful carousel.
However, our focus that visit was on Tennessee’s two-building Aquarium. Both salt water and fresh water marine animals are well represented. Beginning at the top of either aquarium, ramps gradually take visitors down, visiting different ocean and river settings. Discovering freshwater stingrays from the Amazon River Basin and penguins enjoying fresh and sea water were surprises.
On our first visit, we visited the Hunter Museum of American Art, its eclectic collection and shows reflected in its architecture – a stately neo-classic bricked mansion attached on either side to more modern buildings. However, with grandchildren in tow, the Children’s Discovery Museum beckoned from its quirky fun building just a few blocks from the Aquarium. While not the most extensive children’s museum we’ve visited, it had enough fun activities to end the day on an upbeat note.
Our grandson, Diego, wanted to visit Rock City – mainly because a friend at school told him about it. This is an odd tourist destination on Lookout Mountain that has paths and rock gardens. I thought he wanted to visit a rock store. That morning the Mountain was socked in by clouds but we still hoped to visit Rock City for the rocks. However, upon arriving, the mist and fog were so dense, we could hardly see the entrance. What followed was a search for another rock store ending at the Chattanooga Crystal Store where our grandsons were first exposed to incense, meditative music and crystals and rocks with powers. Fabricio kept asking “what’s that smell” and Luka tried to fill his woven basket to the brim with pretty (expensive) rocks requiring much downsizing at checkout. As we walked out, Diego wanted to know when we could get some rock candy which is really all he wanted.
And then there’s the song – the Chattanooga Choo Choo – made famous in 1941 by the Glen Miller band in the movie, Sun Valley Serenade. It was a lively dancing piece for the times, especially for a tap dancer. The train’s sleeper cars are parked at the restored 1901 Beaux Art Train Station. The cars double as hotel rooms and an exhibit. While we have not yet stayed in one of the sleepers, it is on our “to experience” list. The song pervades the community, and its words are even engraved on the sidewalk outside the aquarium.
Part of Chattanooga’s success comes from its ability to attract large employers such Volkswagen and the Tennessee Valley Authority that supervises its dams and nuclear energy plants. If you drive a Passat or Atlas, your car was probably built in Chattanooga. The plant is expanding to produce VW’s first electric car in the U.S. – the ID.4. Recognized as one of the country’s 100 best places to live, Chattanooga is not just for Civil War aficionados and tourists anymore. It has grown up and offers much for young and old.