The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga

People who live in Chattanooga think they live in the most interesting city in Tennessee, and they may be right. When it comes to things historic, Chattanooga has a lot to boast about -- a local history museum and three Civil War battlefields, for instance. Let's talk some of the stories that make Chattanooga unique.

The Wild River

This part of Tennessee was important before Chattanooga was here. Today the Tennessee River in and near Chattanooga is tame because of the Nickajack and Chickamaugan dams. But in the old days, the river in this part of Tennessee was wild and treacherous.

If you read about the history of Nashville, you'll learn about how its original settlers, floating down the Tennessee River, were attacked by Chickamaugans led by Dragging Canoe. Well, this happened in and near what is now Chattanooga, where Dragging Canoe and his followers built villages with names such as Running Water and Nickajack.

This 1821 map shows the area along the Tennessee River known as "The Suck" and the place then known as "Ross's" -- now Chattanooga
Back then, the river was wild. If you were floating down the Tennessee River you could expect to encounter one dangerous place after another -- rapids, tricky currents, unexpected shallow areas, places where boulders came so close to the surface that your boat would hit them. These areas went by names such as "The Suck," "The Pot," "The Skillet," and "The Pan." It may sound fun now, but it was hardly fun to the people trying to make their way down the river, terrified of being shot at from the riverbank.

In fact, one riverman used to tell a story about how, once on a trip through The Suck, he passed a shack with a man playing a banjo out front, then another, then another, then another. It was only then that he realized that the current was spinning him around and that he was passing the same shack over and over again.

Eventually the Chickamaugans stopped fighting, but it was still hard to pass through this part of Tennessee, regardless of whether you were doing so by boat, on foot, or by horse. Because of this, in 1815, a man named John Ross started a trading post, warehouse, and ferry about a mile upstream of where "The Suck" began. Ross was part-Scotch, part-Irish, and part-Cherokee, and he had been elected as a Cherokee chief. His trading post became known as Ross's Landing; it was located where downtown Chattanooga is today.

A sign at Nickajack Dam, which is located where Hales Bar Dam used to be
Because of the navigational difficulties of this stretch of the river, business and governmental officials were trying to build a dam to improve navigation for years. In 1905 an entity called the Chattanooga & Tennessee River Power Co. began building such a dam; in addition to serving as an aide to navigation, it was fitted with a hydroelectric plant (which made electricity). The dam and plant –known as Hale’s Bar– was completed in 1913. Today there is a dam there called Nickajack.
Union troops near Chattanooga.
PHOTO: Library of Congress
The Civil War

Each of Tennessee's four large cities can claim that they had a Civil War battle. But Chattanooga had much more than that; it had an invasion; then a battle (Chickamauga); then a seige; then a series of manuevers; then another battle (Lookout Mountain); and then another battle (Missionary Ridge). It's pretty complicated stuff, and some military historians have called the so called "Chattanooga Campaign" the turning point of the war.

When the Civil War began, Chattanooga was a small place (only 2,500 people). So why did Union and Confederate troops fight so hard for it? Railroads. In the years before the Civil War, two of the most important railroads in the South were the one that linked Nashville to Savannah, Georgia, and the one that linked Memphis to Charleston, South Carolina. These two rail links intersected in Chattanooga.

In 1863 a Confederate army under General Braxton Bragg retreated southeast through Tennessee, following the route that now closely follows Interstate 24. In July that army marched into Chattanooga, and a couple of months later they retreated out of Chattanooga, still heading southeast. The union troops invaded the city and probably felt pretty good about themselves as they chased the Confederate army toward Georgia.

An artist's depiction of the Battle of Chickamauga Creek
On September 18, however, the Confederate army stopped and fought, resulting in a confusing and bloody battle at a dense area near Chickamauga Creek. It was the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War (second only to Gettysburg). Over a fourth of the men in each army were either killed or wounded in the fighting (and remember that in those days, many of the wounded died in the days and weeks after the battle).

Afterwards, the Union Army hobbled back into Chattanooga. The Confederate Army took over Lookout Mountain and proceeded to lay "seige" to the city -- which means that they surrounded it and tried to make certain that no one could come to or leave from there. Meanwhile the Union Army cut every tree down in and near Chattanooga to use for firewood and other things.

This was a grim moment for the Union Army. President Abraham Lincoln quickly ordered troops from other parts of the country and replaced Union General Rosecrans with Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of Vicksburg. Today many historians believe that Confederate General Braxton Bragg made a huge mistake by not attacking right then.

In November, the Union Army began its counterattack. Union troops under command of General Joseph Hooker charged up Lookout Mountain, retaking it from the Confederates. The battle took place on a foggy day, and the skirmish became known as the "Battle above the Clouds." Today if you go to the top of Lookout Mountain and look down at the hill that these men charged up, it is amazing to imagine.

Now back on the offensive, the Union Army came out of Chattanooga and pushed the Confederates back to Missionary Ridge. Another bloodly battle occurred only a few miles from where one had taken place weeks earlier. This time the Union Army, now under the command of General Grant, won. After the battle Confederate General Bragg resigned, and his army withdrew into Georgia. The stage was sent for the invasion of that state.
Food City?

For some reason Chattanooga produces more than its share of fun things to eat and drink. Here are three of them:

* Coca-Cola -- The Coca-Cola drink was invented by an Atlanta drug store operator in 1886. But for years you had to go into a drug store and sit down to enjoy the drink.

In 1899 the owner of the Coca-Cola formula (Asa Candler of Atlanta) signed an agreement with two entrepreneurs in Chattanooga (Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead). After adding a third partner named John Lupton, the Chattanooga businessmen began bottling Coke and selling bottling rights to other companies across the county. And it was then and only then that people across the country began buying and drinking Coke in large quantities.

The first Krystal restaurant
PHOTO: Connie Baumann (Hamilton Co. Geneological Society)
* Krystal -- Ever eat a Krystal burger? Well, the Krystal restaurant chain was originally founded in 1932 in Chattanooga, and it's still based there. By the way, the original name came from the idea that the restaurants were supposed to be as clean as a crystal ball, or "Krystal Klean."

* MoonPie -- The MoonPie was originally invented in 1919 by the Chattanooga Bakery Co. No one is really sure who came up with the idea, but according to the story, one of the company's traveling salemen came back with a request for something that would fit nicely in with a lunch. 

The Children's Discovery Museum in Chattanooga
Chattanooga Quiz

1. (TRUE OR FALSE) In the 1700s it was pretty easy to take a raft down the Tennessee River in the area around what is now Chattanooga.
2. (TRUE OR FALSE) Chattanooga was originally called Ross's Landing.
3. Why was Chattanooga so important to both the Union and Confederate armies?
4. Which army, the Union or Confederate, won the Battle of Chickamauga Creek?
5. Which army, the Union or Confederate, won the Battle of Missionary Ridge?
6. What is the name of the famous drink first bottled in Chattanooga?

Here's a picture of the Hamilton County Courthouse.