Tennessee’s “Scenic City” still lives up to its nickname.
By James & Dorothy Richardson
Chattanooga is already established as one of Tennessee’s most visited destinations, known for attractions such as the Tennessee Aquarium, Lookout Mountain, Rock City, Ruby Falls, and the Incline Railway. But now with the face-lift of the waterfront, the city has a new look along the Tennessee River.
New Looks For The City
The transformation of Chattanooga includes the addition of the Tennessee Aquarium’s Ocean Journey exhibit building; an expansion of the Hunter Museum of American Art; and a renovation of The Creative Discovery Museum. An influx of public art, plus more parks and walkways along the river and a tribute to the community’s Cherokee heritage, are other highlights of the multimillion-dollar improvement called the 21st Century Waterfront Plan.
The Hunter Museum of American Art is perched on an 80-foot bluff above the Tennessee River. Its parklike surroundings include an outdoor sculpture garden and a glass bridge. Various outdoor sculptures and pieces of artwork are placed along the walkways and on the hillside between the Hunter Museum and the streets below. The Holmberg Pedestrian Bridge leads from First Street to the entrance of the museum along a path made of illuminated, laminated glass.
Other sights along the waterfront include river walks and green spaces from which to relax and watch the river; a boat tie-up area; a pedestrian pier; and a dock for the Southern Belle, a riverboat offering cruises on the Tennessee River.
The walkway near the Tennessee Aquarium is a work of art. Called The Passage, it features a tiered wading pool with fountains that entice youngsters to get their feet (and usually other parts) wet. This passageway to the river commemorates the beginning of the Trail of Tears, the name given to the road taken by Cherokee Indians as they were forced to new homes in Oklahoma. According to the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, five American Indian artists (collectively called Gadugi) produced the art along The Passage. Gadugi is a Cherokee word meaning “coming together” or “working together.” Each of the seven disks in the passage is six feet in diameter and made of ceramic and stainless steel.
The Tennessee Aquarium opened in 1992 as the world’s largest freshwater aquarium, and its expansion, the Ocean Journey building, opened in 2005. Saltwater species are highlighted in there, primarily, while the original River Journey building’s focus is on freshwater fish and related creatures. In the Ocean Journey area, visitors can see 10-foot sharks swimming around a coral reef, as well as stingrays, octopuses, jellyfish, and barracuda. A 100-foot tropical beach and an open-air butterfly garden also are found in this building.
The latest addition to the Ocean Journey wing is Penguins’ Rock. It features two very active species of cold-climate penguins “” Gentoo and Macaroni. Since the birds moved in last May, they have helped visitors learn about the world’s Southern Hemisphere and the islands surrounding the South Pole. The birds live in an 18,000-gallon pool of 45-degree water, complete with waves.
The penguins alone make the Tennessee Aquarium a must-see. For more information, visit www.tnaqua.org, or call (800) 262-0695; (423) 265-0698.
Positioned at the crossroads of several interstate highways (Interstate 24, Interstate 75, and Interstate 59), Chattanooga is in a strategic location of southeastern Tennessee. Many visitors pass through the city en route to somewhere else, be it Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville, or the Smoky Mountains. And they’re familiar with what it offers “” sites such as the Civil War battlefield at Chickamauga (across the state line in Georgia); Ruby Falls, Rock City, Lookout Mountain, and the Incline Railway. But Chattanooga has other attractions that you may not have heard about, including the Chattanooga Choo Choo, the Bluff View Art District, Coolidge Park, and the Tennessee Riverpark.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo is now parked at a renovated terminal station built in the early 1900s, part of a 24-acre complex that includes a hotel, restaurants, a model railroad museum, and retail shops. An authentic New Orleans trolley takes visitors around the Choo Choo complex without charge. One of the trolleys was built in 1920 for use on Canal Street, withdrawn from service in 1960, sent to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in 1964, and finally sold to the Choo Choo.
The Chattanooga Choo Choo complex is located near downtown, convenient to the other attractions. Aside from the complex’s trolley system, visitors will appreciate the pollution-free electric bus system that transports them for free all around the downtown area.
The Bluff View Art District is a creative array of galleries, restaurants, and inns. On the south shore along the Tennessee River’s steep cliffs, the art district is within easy walking distance of the Tennessee Aquarium, the Hunter Museum of American Art, and the Walnut Street Pedestrian Bridge. The Bluff View is appropriately named because of its view of the river and surrounding area.
On Chattanooga’s North Shore waterfront, the area around Coolidge Park offers outdoor fun, shopping, and reminiscing.
Here, children of all ages are fascinated by public fountains and a vintage carousel. The restored 104-year-old carousel features 54 decorated and carved creatures and was revived by folks at Horsin’ Around, America’s only carousel carving school. Horsin’ Around is located in a town called Soddy Daisy, just outside Chattanooga. Master carver Bud Ellis runs the school and has himself produced more than 450 carousel pieces. Students from all around the world come to study there. Many retired people also take the classes. (Call 423-332-1111; e-mail [email protected]; or visit www.horsin-around.net for more information.)
Coolidge Park is part of the 22-mile Tennessee Riverpark, a continuous circuit of parks, trails, and landmarks along the Tennessee River. Six-acre Coolidge Park is connected to the South Shore downtown section of Chattanooga and the aquarium by the longest pedestrian bridge in America, the Walnut Street Bridge. The half-mile bridge across the Tennessee River is a favorite spot for bicyclists, joggers, and walkers. Many visitors will get their first view of Coolidge Park from above as they cross the Walnut Street Bridge.
At the north end of the bridge, a walkway leads from the revitalized Frazier Avenue commercial district back toward the river and the park. The North Shore rebirth took off when new shops, art galleries, and restaurants started appearing on Frazier Avenue following the 1993 re-opening of the Walnut Street Bridge as a pedestrian connection between the two sides of the river.
Lookout Mountain, Too
Of course, Rock City and Ruby Falls still draw much attention, and they’re only six miles from downtown. Ruby Falls plunges 145 feet straight down into a crystal-clear pool and is one of the oldest and best-known natural tourist attractions in the South. The waterfall is underground and emerges from the vaulted dome of Lookout Mountain Caverns, where visitors also see gigantic stalactites and stalagmites. The caverns were used by outlaws long ago and even served as a temporary hospital site during the Civil War.
Rock City is located atop Lookout Mountain. This natural attraction has been helped (slightly) by man’s ingenuity, with massive rock formations and gardens of native plant species. The old claim that you can “see seven states” is a reality.
The Incline Railway travels to the top of Lookout Mountain, and gives Chattanooga another distinction, as it is the world’s steepest passenger railway. The ride takes 45 minutes one way on a track that has a 72.7 percent grade near the top. An observation deck at the summit also allows panoramic views from the highest overlook on the mountain. From there, the Great Smoky Mountains are about 100 miles away and can be seen on clear days.
Two Unusual Views . . .
Railroad buffs take note: A piece of Chattanooga history exists in the form of the Tennessee Valley Railroad, still in operation. Chattanooga was a railroad town, and this complex just outside the city offers scenic rides pulled by a steam locomotive. You can choose the Missionary Ridge Local, a quick introductory trip that takes only 55 minutes and includes a Civil War-era tunnel. The Chickamauga Turn ride lasts 5 1/2 hours, and makes a round trip to historic Chickamauga, Georgia. The tours leave from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, where you get a guided tour of the restoration shop used to refurbish engines and parts and put them back into operation.
Another unusual attraction in Chattanooga is the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. Restored antique wreckers and equipment; industry-related displays of collectible toys; tools; equipment; and pictorial histories of manufacturers that pioneered a worldwide industry are featured. Chattanooga was chosen as the museum’s home because the industry’s first wrecker was made a few miles away from the museum.
With all that Chattanooga has to offer “” its new waterfront, the Ocean Journey addition to the Tennessee Aquarium, the revived shopping districts, the Hunter Museum of American Art, and much more “” there are many reasons to visit this southeastern Tennessee city. On the next trip to Atlanta, Nashville, or the Smokies, don’t just pass through Chattanooga. Stop and explore its waterfront and enjoy some of the sites. And remember to visit the penguins!
Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
2 Broad St.
Chattanooga, TN 37402