Chattanooga: A City to Sing About
By Marian Betancourt
Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain rises 1700 feet at the u-turn in the Tennessee River known as Moccasin Bend. The rolling green foothills of the Appalachian range spread as far as the eye can see across several states. There is much history in this southeastern corner of Tennessee, a history of the deep connection to the beautiful land the Cherokees loved and were forced to give up. Later, the “Battle Above the Clouds,” so called because of fog that sometimes rings the mountain, was the turning point in the Civil War where General Sherman began his March to the Sea.
This spectacular platform is part of Rock City, a botanical and geological parkland. Down under Lookout Mountain is the nation’s deepest commercial cave–as far beneath the earth as the Empire State Building is above it–with a mysterious 145-foot underground waterfall, a prehistoric natural attraction discovered in 1928 by Leo Lambert who named it Ruby Falls for his wife. With a guide you descend (in a glass-walled elevator) and walk a mile through stalactites and stalagmites with strange rock formations and running creeks. You hear the waterfall before you enter the cavern where it is briefly spotlighted with colored lights, like a Broadway finale that prompts spontaneous applause from visitors.
Outside, at sea level again is Ross’s Landing, the city’s original settlement, a trading post and ferry dock established in 1816 by the last Cherokee chief, John Ross. Twenty two years later it became the departure point for the Cherokee removal to Oklahoma, the Trail of Tears. Now a memorial park, this is where you board a boat guided by an environmentalist from the aquarium through a beautifully scenic gorge known as Tennessee’s Grand Canyon.
In the century following the Civil War, the city’s growing industry of mining, timber, cotton mills, and railroads, gradually turned Chattanooga into the dirtiest city in the country, which Walter Cronkite announced on the news one evening in 1969. Today it is among the nation’s cleanest and greenest, with a renewed pride in the land and history.
Among the pioneers in the city’s renaissance is The Moses family, Sally, Susan and their mother Maggie, who in 1992, after three years of renovating an abandoned warehouse near the river, opened 212 Market, the first green restaurant in Tennessee and winner of many culinary awards since. “We used everything locally,” said Maggie, now in her 90s and still enjoying her work at the restaurant. (There’s a charming video interview with Maggie on the restaurant website.) Susan, a professionally trained chef, who has cooked at the James Beard House in New York, runs the kitchen, which is famous for the in-house bakery, local bison burger, and bread pudding.
Also downtown is Easy Bistro housed in what was America’s first Coca Cola plant built in 1899. Classically trained chef Erik Niel uses all local products for dishes like spiced winter squash and pear soup with crème fraiche, fennel and fox grape. At Sugar’s Downtown, ribs smoked in hickory and red oak are so succulent and flavorful you may actually swoon. Have some wood-grilled okra on the side.
Dr. Charles Portera and his wife Mary helped reinvigorate the neighborhood on a high bluff overlooking the Tennessee River, home to the city’s industrial tycoons before falling into disrepair. Today the Bluff View Art District has restaurants, such as the wonderful Back Inn Café, The Hunter Museum of Art, the River Gallery, and a Sculpture Park on two acres overlooking the river, with permanent and changing exhibits by such art luminaries as Frank Stella and Isamu Noguchi.
The city’s enormous railroad terminal, a Beaux Arts masterpiece with an 85-foot dome, was built by the southern Railway in 1906 and served until 1970. Chattanooga was a crucial rail center during World War II with many servicemen and women traveling through on their way overseas and it was immortalized by Glen Miller’s hit song, Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Taking its name from the song, this rail complex has been reborn as the city’s largest hotel with 363 rooms including 48 renovated private sleeping cars, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Further restoration plans include restaurants and a music venue called Track 29, from the famous song. Also revitalizing downtown, is The Chattanoogan, a brand new Benchmark Hotel, with a Triple AAA, Four-diamond rating, close to restaurants and attractions.
The Agritourism Trail
Chattanooga is surrounded by farms, orchards, and dairies that offer tours such as Sweet Water Valley Farm where you can and get up close and personal with dairy cows. At Mayfield Dairy tour the ice cream plant and have some samples, and visit Apple Valley Orchard, for some fresh made apple cider donuts.
The 300-acre, family-owned Sequatchie Cove Farm and Creamery is home to gourmet cheeses including the award-winning Dancing Fern with the flavor of freshly crushed walnuts. (The name was inspired by the wind blowing through a cave and making the ferns dance.) The climate and eco system of the Cumberland valley is the most diverse on earth, according to owner Bill Keener, who considers each blade of grass a solar panel and whose cows are moved twice a day so they get the freshest grass to munch on along with 30 to 40 different herbs.
Along the side of Highway 41 in Madisonville is a modest country store with a smokehouse out back where Benton’s Smoky Mountain ham and bacon, now favorites of chefs around the country, are produced. Hickory smoke perfumes the air as a constant flow of locals come in for this meat, along with tourists, who may also buy a Benton’s tee shirt to show off where they’ve been.
The Trail of Tears
The Cherokee Interpretive Center at Red Clay State Historic Park in nearby Cleveland will this year be the site of the first tri-council (Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina) meeting of the Cherokee nation since 1838, the fateful year of the removal. This park, the last seat of the Cherokee government, once held cotton fields and pastures and you can visit replicas of farmhouses and the beautiful natural Blue Hole Spring.
Native Americans had no written language until Sequoyah, an illiterate Cherokee silver smith, fur trader and blacksmith, developed a pictorial alphabet, similar to the Egyptian hieroglyph, which became known in 1821 as the syllabary. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum on Tellico Lake was opened in 1986 by the Eastern Band Cherokee, which is expanding the property. Sequoyah Landing will become a resort with a boat yard and restaurant. The museum shop includes an extensive book collection for those wanting more on the area’s history.
The Gospel Music Trail
The Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland houses permanent exhibitions about the Cherokee and those who came before. It is also establishing a permanent exhibition about the gospel music trail, for this would not be Tennessee without music. The Red Back Church Hymnal with hundreds of gospel songs was published here 60 years ago and is found in every church in the country. Today people who love to sing and hear gospel can attend Red Back Hymnal Singings, held in various community churches, which are sold out well in advance among residents and visitors alike.
“Gospel is the melting pot,” said Charles Towler, a southern gospel convention singer. “Like jazz, rhythm and blues, ragtime, it’s a type of folk music written by common people.” He tells of former slave, C. Albert Trindley, who worked as a janitor, and wrote “Stand by Me” and many other well known songs. Albert Brumley, was inspired to write “I’ll Fly Away When I Die,” by watching the birds overhead when he grew weary of plowing the field and he lay down for a rest. Towler gives gospel songwriting lessons and his Gospel Heritage Quartet and Youth Quartet travel to Oklahoma during the summer to hold music camp for the Choctaw nation. He is also working on a Cherokee hymnal.
This lovely town with its tree-lined streets and pretty one-family houses has some outstanding restaurants and small hotels such as the very comfortable and modern Hampton Inn, which has a “Green Leaders 2014” award. At Cafe Roma, Chef Shannon Ritzhaupt, who trained with Italian chefs in Naples, creates unforgettable dishes such as ravioli with local spinach, corn, shitake slivers, onion and roasted red peppers. At the Bald-Headed Bistro you dine in a cozy but very large log cabin, with sophisticated steakhouse fare and special game dishes.
This is but a glimpse of what the Chattanooga area has to offer. I haven’t even mentioned the zip line up Lookout Mountain, the climbing wall downtown, river kayaking, the wineries and breweries. I’ve explored many parts of Tennessee, which to me is a soulful place, not only for the music, but the rolling green hills and valleys, the clear running rivers and streams, the remembrance of things past and respect for all of it.
If you go:
If you go: Tennessee Department of Tourist Development www.tnvacation.com
Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau www.chattanoogafun.com
Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce www.visitcleveland.com