Chattanooga is described as one of the top 45 places in the world to visit. Paul Harris discovers why...
IT was a whistlestop, 36-hour visit to Chattanooga, in America’s Deep South. First stop, appropriately, was the Choo Choo Hotel.
The rail tracks and the platform are still there, as is the impressive ticket hall of what was Terminal Station with its 90ft dome — at the time it was built in 1908, the largest free-standing brick arch in the world.
Close your eyes and you can hear the footsteps of the millions of passengers who had passed through this Tennessee station over six decades.
The days of the train arriving from New York’s Penn Station, via Baltimore and North and South Carolina, as sung by Glenn Miller, have long gone.
The last train left Terminal in 1970, 62 years after the first, nicknamed ‘Choo Choo’, arrived from Cincinnati.
And this beautiful edifice lay empty until it became the iconic Choo-Choo Hotel three years later, converted from the original station immortalised by Glen Miller’s 1947 hit.
But all is not lost for those who are nostalgic for the bygone romantic era of steam trains.
Forty-eight vintage carriages offer accommodation, each with their own en-suite facilities, including bathtub.
The rolling stock is still entirely intact, complete with wheels and mechanism. It lines the original platforms and nearby are vintage locomotives.
For those preferring conventional accommodation, there are hotel rooms too.
It’s still possible to relive the age of steam on the Tennessee Valley Railroad which runs trips on its six-mile track.
It was all so different 50 years ago when tourists scarcely gave Chattanooga a second glance.
In 1969, it was described as America’s most polluted city and there was an almost ever-present yellow smog, the result of steel mills and other industry.
As those industries started to collapse, city leaders hit on the idea of tourism to replace it, and an aquarium, still one of the most popular attractions, was built and stocked.
Today it houses 10,000 animals, including alligators.
Check out Warehouse Row, formerly a hive of wholesale activity and now home to upmarket shops and restaurants.
Coolidge Park boasts a 1894 hand-carved, wooden merry-go-round which has been faithfully restored by local craftsmen. Rides are just $1.
Renaissance Park offers attractive walking trails for the more energetic and there is a 13-mile path along the Mississippi River, which is popular with cyclists, too.
Children can enjoy the Creative Discovery Museum and for the culturally-minded, there’s the Hunter Museum of Art.
There are some attractions which will appeal to anoraks.
Coker Tire, a company selling car tyres, today also houses the Vintage Tyre Moulds and Vintage Car Museum.
It is to them that car-owners turn for tyre patterns that are obsolete. They apparently have virtually all of them.
And since the tow truck was invented by Ernest Holmes, in Chattanooga, in 1916, it seems only appropriate that this everyday workhorse should be commemorated in the city.
More trucks are produced there than anywhere else in America.
At the International Towing and Recovery Museum, aficionados can not only view historic vehicles, they can drive them too.
Within the Choo-Choo complex, which incidentally houses some interesting retail outlets, is one of the new jewels in Chattanooga’s crown — the Songbirds Museum, the world’s largest collection of guitars.
There, the history and evolution of guitars unfold before the eyes of visitors.
The collection numbers 1,600 instruments, some so valuable that they are kept in a separate, visitable vault, with bullet-proof glass and an ultra-sophisticated fire-extinguishing system.
Jazz guitarist Oscar Moore’s electronic Fender Nocaster is one of the $1m exhibits and considered one of the most valuable in the collection, although the most sought-after are probably the Gibson Explorers, favoured by Eric Clapton, and The Edge of U2 fame.
Some of the biggest names in the music world have visited the museum and been as excited as children in toyshops actually to touch some of the prized instruments.
There are more than 60 Gibson Sunbursts, seen as the holy grail of electric guitars, 300 Fenders with customised colours and 75 Gibson Firebirds, also painted to order.
Fender’s invention of the electric bass guitar revolutionised the industry and was responsible for the birth of rock’n roll.
General manager of Songbirds is 62-year-old Jewish New Yorker, Irving Berner, himself a guitar player and some time band member.
His own ticket stubs from notable gigs are displayed at the museum.
My whistlestop tour of Chattanooga meant that time was limited and the most expedient way to see the city was via Grayline’s Hop On and Hop Off Trolley Tour, which has 12 iconic stops, commencing and finishing at the Choo- Choo Hotel.
Most notably, I learn that what is considered to be the death knell of the Confederacy during the American Civil War was sounded at The Battle of Missionary Ridge on November 25, 1863, as part of the Chattanooga Campaign.
Following the Union victory at the Battle of Lookout Mountain (also known as the Battle Above the Clouds) the previous day, Union forces defeated the Confederate Army of Tennessee, forcing it to retreat to Georgia.
In the shadow of Lookout Mountain is The Rock City. During the battle, a Union officer and a Confederate nurse observed in diary entries that they could see seven states from the summit top.
Seven States Flag Court is a tribute to each of those states — Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia
Even if those Unionists weren’t literally dancing for joy, Chattanoogans certainly are today.
On Frazier Avenue, steps for the Cha Cha and other dances are marked out on the pavement with shoe soles.
Rock City has existed for millennia and native Americans lived among its pillars.
Garnet Carter, the inventor of Crazy Golf, sold its patent for $200,000 in 1927 and bought the site with the proceeds.
He built paths and added more than 400 varieties of plants before opening it to the public.
Today, it is a popular tourist haunt with its shady trails, mysterious rock formations and tableaux that bring famous fairytales spectacularly to life.
Lover’s Leap is one of its more photographed features.
Nearby is Ruby Falls, a 145-foot underground waterfall within Lookout Mountain, the largest and deepest in America,
The Passage is a pedestrian route to the Tennessee River, marking the beginning of the Trail of Tears that recognises the forcible removal of the Cherokee tribes from Ross’s Landing to Oklahoma.
Sadly, 4,000 Cherokees died before reaching Oklahoma. A ‘weeping wall’ represents their tears as they were driven from their homes.
Chattanooga acquired its name in 1838 from the native American word meaning “a rock coming to a point”, and refers to Lookout Mountain.
It had been known formerly as Ross’s Landing, after John Ross, chief of the Cherokees, and had been a trading post and ferry.
I take to the water on the Southern Belle for a different view of Chattanooga from the Mississippi River.
The two-hour sightseeing dinner cruise offers a different perspective of the city and its bridges as night falls. It operates at lunchtime too, although trips can be taken without dining (chattanoogariverboat.com — 001 423 266 4488).
A very different form of transport is the Incline Railway. Built in 1895 by the Otis lift company, the 72.7-degree gradient at one point is the steepest in the world.
Its one-mile long single track to the top of Lookout Mountain reaches a loop in the middle, allowing both counter-balanced trains to operate at the same time.
Passengers experience an eight-degree temperature difference from bottom to top.
For locals, in bad weather, the railway is the only way they can reach their homes.
After 36 hours, and seemingly having experienced something new about Chattanooga every few minutes, the New York Times’ declaration that it is one of the “top 45 places in the world to go” no longer appeared to be mere hyperbole.