From 1880, most of the trains that were bound for America’s South passed through the southeastern Tennessee city of Chattanooga. The city is the transition point between the ridge-and-valley portion of the Appalachian Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau. Long considered the gateway to the Deep South, Chattanooga’s extensive transportation infrastructure has evolved this area into a major freight destination for many of our nation’s goods shipped by rail.
The first railroad line in Chattanooga was the Western and Atlantic Railroad in 1850. Eight years later, the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad arrived here. This is what helped make the city a major railroad hub and facilitated many industries’ decisions to locate here and take advantage of the newly created transportation system. During this time, railroads were the cutting-edge technology of the day. Industrialization boomed here with the advent of this extensive rail access.
The American Civil War was the first conflict in which railroads became a major strategic factor for opposing armies. Both sides realized that Chattanooga was a vital area for moving men and equipment for their war efforts.
One of the more famous stories of the war is about the steam engine, The General. It was stolen by Yankee spies at Big Shanty (now Kennesaw, Georgia) on April 12, 1862, and brought northward on today’s still-operational CSX rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga. While fleeing, the Andrews Raiders were hotly pursued by Confederates chasing them in the steam engine Texas. (Note: This was before engines were numbered. They were given names instead.) The Raiders were eventually caught, two miles north of Ringgold, when The General ran out of wood and water for fuel. The spies were hung and are now buried in the National Cemetery between McCallie and Bailey Avenues. You can see their tombstone marker with a replica of The General atop it by entering in from the Holtzclaw Avenue side of the cemetery.
After the war, The General was on display for decades at L&N’s Chattanooga Union Depot. Built in 1858, it was just across from the Historic Read House downtown. Then in the late ’60s things changed for the little engine. The State of Georgia sued to have The General returned and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Georgia won. So the famous engine was returned to Georgia in 1970, and the Union Depot was torn down in 1972.
Today, we still have many railroads within the Scenic City. One of the oldest and largest is the CSX. It is a major Class 1 railroad as designated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Made up from a conglomeration of many other railroads, it is now called CSX Transportation. Their local switching yard is Wauhatchie Yard, located southwest of the city at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Tiftonia.
CSXT is comprised of bygone railway companies such as Nashville & Chattanooga (N&C; the first railroad into the state), Western & Atlantic (W&A) Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis (NC&StL), Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Seaboard Coastline (SCL) Atlantic Coastline (ACL), and others. As you can see, CSXT has a rich history and has been a staple in Chattanooga for a very long time.
CSX is one of the few rail lines in the US that use concrete cross-ties on their main lines. A concrete tie has a useable life of approximately 50 years, in comparison to a 20-year life span of a regular wooden tie. Instead of being traditionally spiked in place, they have “pandrol clips” that hold it to the rail. Concrete ties are used for longer service life and very heavy rail tonnage.
The other big Class 1 railroad here is the Norfolk Southern (NS). A subsidiary of Norfolk Southern Corporation, formed largely in this region out of the historic Southern Railway System, NS is a major provider of jobs, services and recreational train activities.
Debutts Yard, located just off of Amnicola Highway, is a major rail classification yard facility. In what is known as a “hump-yard,” trains come and go 24 hours a day. After arriving, train cars are broken apart and reformed for new trains to be built and sent to their ongoing destinations.
Downtown is the historic Terminal Station, currently being operated as the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. Opened in 1909 by the Southern Railway, it is the largest railway station in our city’s history. The arched main entrance of the building is said to be the largest unsupported brick arch in the world. The last train pulled out of the station in 1970.
1301 Market St. is where the old Southern Railway System office building still stands. Behind the building you will find what is now the Urban Stack restaurant. This old building used to be a Civil War hospital. Before Urban Stack remodeled the structure, the Southern Railway used it as a maintenance tool house for Signal, Electrical, and Communications employees.
One of the most popular operating railroad museums in the Southeast and a true jewel of our area is the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM), located at 4119 Cromwell Rd. with a connecting depot three miles down the track at Chamberlain Avenue. Along the line, you go through a pre-Civil-War-era 979-foot horseshoe tunnel on the scenic ride upon the clickity-clack of the jointed rail. The TVRM is classified as a Class 3 railroad (meaning a slower speed to operate by; 35-mph limit).
The TVRM has been preserving, restoring, and operating historic railroad equipment since the 1960s. TVRM offers many rail trips and special events to introduce the public to historic rail travel, from the daily Missionary Ridge Local to the weekend Dinner Trains. Annual events include Day Out With Thomas, Summer Camps, Halloween Eerie Express, the North Pole Limited during the holidays, and of course the Valentine Special.
By far, the biggest rail event at the museum is the annual Railfest in September. Co-sponsored by NS Railway, this event has grown larger every year. Last year , the museum used the event to reintroduce the beautifully restored steam engine 4501. Several years of painstaking restoration was revealed when the engine was rolled out for display and used for this special event.
For longer trips, you can choose the Chickamauga Turn, and Summerville Steam Special excursions traveling into Georgia along the old Tennessee Alabama & Georgia line (TAG). There is even a satellite service out of Etowah called Hiwassee River Rail Adventures. These beautiful trips travel through the scenic Hiwassee Gorge of Reliance, and on to Copperhill when in season.
(For more information about schedules, details, and online ordering for excursions, track down the website at tvrails.com)
Another local railway is the Tyner Terminal Railroad (TNT) at Enterprise South Industrial Park, servicing the flow of VW Passat cars to the nation and facilitating the switching for repair of rail cars.
Who hasn’t heard of the historic Lookout Mountain Incline Railway? Located along the side of Lookout Mountain, passengers begin their journey in trolley-style cars at the base of the mountain in St. Elmo, and then travel up to the summit at Point Park. The railway is one mile long with a passing loop in the middle. This is what allows two cars to operate at the same time. The maximum grade is 72.7 percent, making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world. Opened in November 16, 1895, the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway is designated as a National Historic Site and National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
Not only do we have the big railroads here, we also have the National Model Railroad Association. Located beside the TVRM since 1982, the NMRA has a collection of many local and national models for viewing at their depot-styled building on Cromwell Road.
What is the future for rail here? The freight railroads will remain here due to Chattanooga’s pivotal geographic location for rail distribution, and their long-term huge investment. In fact, CSX & NS are two of the major landowners in Chattanooga.
But why do we have this high volume of freight rail activity, but no passenger rail service for commuters or long-distance travelers? The City of Chattanooga’s Administrator of Transportation, Blythe Bailey, told me, “There is no denying Chattanooga’s rich railroad history. Because of existing rail located throughout our city, the city is looking at how we can strategically utilize it to spur economic reinvestment in neighborhoods that really need it. With light rail connecting one part of Chattanooga to another, we would provide access to more transportation options to both residents and visitors alike and build upon our rich history.”
Fortunately, the city has just received a federal grant that will allow it to study light rail (or passenger rail) options in Chattanooga. The city’s transportation administrator’s office will be working closely with consultants on this future study.
It would be nice to hop a high-speed, magnetic-levitation rail line to Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta and then fly out anywhere into the world—but don’t hold your breath. This idea, floated many times, still has no major traction or funding.
On a closing note, hundreds of people are killed every year due to car-train collisions and trespassing. Having worked for many different railroads throughout my life, I have seen first-hand what happens to vehicles and people struck by trains. Operation Lifesaver says it well: When it’s a tie at the crossing, you lose. So ride the rails—but inside the trains they’re made for.