“Which way do I go to see the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” I ask Harry Phillips, the owner of Stonefort Inn, where I am staying.
It’s a question that is often asked in this eastern Tennessee town. After all, who can mention Chattanooga without immediately whistling the song, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”? This Big Band tune about a happy steam engine was first performed by Glenn Miller in 1942. It rattled rapidly through the charts, helping Miller earn the first gold record in musical history and putting this little southern town on the map.
So you would think that everyone in Chattanooga would know the history of the legendary passenger train by heart! Yet my hotelier, Harry, doesn’t quite know how to answer my question, and tracking down the puffing pop star is surprisingly difficult.
“Do you mean the hotel?” stammers Bobby Scanlon, manager of the Sticky Fingers Restaurant (allegedly serving the best ribs in the South), when I ask him for directions to the Choo-Choo.
I’m surprised that the famous train is so elusive. But I guess I should have been suspicious about the reality of the Choo-Choo when I realized that you can longer even reach the city by train.
On a first glimpse through the plane window, Chattanooga looks all snuggled up in the crook of the arm of the Tennessee River – a stony island in the midst of the green hilly ocean of the Appalachians, surrounded by a finely-knit railway net.
With its tunnels and curves, signals and switches, seemingly tiny cars and peaceful grazing miniature cows, it looks exactly like a picture book landscape for model trains from this high above.
But “Choo-Choo Town” was not always this idyllic. During the American Civil War, Chattanooga served as a strategic service knot for the Confederates. Other parts of Tennessee were fighting for the Union. It was a terrible war that tore the state in two.
Steam trains on both sides were involved in heavy fighting, literally racing each other to get supplies first to their respective sides. Train tracks were disassembled in the dead of the night, and adversarial steam engines were mutually stolen from one another as each side fought to get ahead.
Around 1910, the city became a crucial junction for 10 different railway lines on their way to important seaports and metropolitan markets. Chattanooga has had five different train stations in its history. The last one was closed in 1970. Today, only freight cars rumble through town, and passenger wagons are a thing of the past.
The old train tracks climb right onto “Lookout Mountain,” Chattanooga’s highest mountain (2,391 feet or 729 meters). Since 1895, the “Incline Railway” has claimed to be the steepest passenger train in the world, with a breathtaking maximum grade of 72.7 percent gaining an overall altitude of almost 1500 feet (or 450 meters). You can become nauseous just from looking down from one of the wooden car benches.
Atop Lookout Mountain is Rock City Gardens, and from its terrace you can supposedly see the borders of seven US states. A 4,100-foot (1.2 km) walking trail winds through this natural labyrinth of massive rock formations, caves and lush gardens which is actually located in Georgia just 6 miles (or 9.6 km) from downtown Chattanooga.
This land used to belong to the Cherokee Indians, however. They called the mountain “where the mountain comes to a point” in their native tongue. Legend has it that Nacoochee, the chief’s daughter, jumped off the picturesque rocky point after her father had her secretly married husband pushed over the edge. If only the two had tried a little harder to hide their love.
They would not have had to look very far. There are stalactite caves hidden deep in the heart of Lookout Mountain — and even a subterranean waterfall. Leo Lambert discovered these roaring waters plunging 44 meters deep and named them after his wife Rube – hence “Ruby Falls.” Colorful lights illuminate the waterfall – ruby (of course) to plum blue.
“There used to be a natural entrance into this maze of caves until the Southern Railway Company closed it for a train tunnel,” says our tour guide, Brent Wade. He knows a lot about history and trains, but he has no clue where the “Choo-Choo” ended up. “Isn’t it somewhere in Georgia?” he asks.
Still frustrated in my search, I follow the city’s Scenic Drive further. All over Chattanooga small signs with promising train symbol are mounted high on lampposts. But the arrows underneath are misleading, and I find myself wandering all over town.
First, I wander into the art district Bluff View, and then past the interactive children’s museum Creative Discovery. I stop to watch children playing at the Ross’s Landing waterfront, with its historic carousel and water spitting animal-fountains (splashing encouraged!), and then ogle over the pregnant seahorse daddies and snapping turtles at the excellent Tennessee Aquarium, home to the largest freshwater tanks in the world.
Chattanooga is clean and tidy, and it’s easy to get around on the wide streets. Yet the town hasn’t always had such a clean image. In 1969, it was declared the most polluted spot in the US. Businessmen regularly had to change their white shirts soiled from emissions after lunch break.
Thankfully, the smoking steal mills have long since gone bankrupt, and Chattanooga has reinvented itself like a phoenix from the ashes.
For example, the historic Train Terminal Station, built by Southern Railway between 1906 and 1909 in Beaux-Arts style, reopened in 1973 as a hotel complex. You can still read “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” in big letters high on the brick arch above the entrance.
The architect was Donn Barber of New York, whose design won the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris design award in 1900. The ticket windows of the past are now home to a lovely hotel reception area. A motionless train with a steam engine dating from the 19th century stands parked in the courtyard.
Railway fans can stay in 24 renovated cars with pink wallpaper, double beds, chairs with flower patterns and mini bathrooms. In March 5, 1880, the first passenger train connecting the North with the South traveled from Cincinnati (Ohio) south to Chattanooga on the first municipal railroad, the Cincinnati-Southern Line. It was a reporter covering the event who supposedly came up with the term, “choo choo” after the sound the train makes.
“But our train is actually just a replica”, whispers the concierge, covertly handing me a brochure of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
It is here at the Railway Museum that I finally learn the truth about the famous train.
“There is no Choo-Choo,” declares historian Alan Walker matter-of-factly. At least, there has never been a train with this name. Glenn Miller’s famous swing song was referring to an imaginative train journey from New York to Tennessee – and there are no original steam engines preserved that ever traveled such a route.
Oh well. Even if the quest for the Choo-Choo was unsuccessful, the search was not in vain. If I had immediately found the legendary train, I would have overlooked all the other attractions that Chattanooga has to offer.
Perhaps I should run back to the perplexed hotelier Harry and let him in on my findings. Then again, maybe I’ll just book another night at his charming Stonefort Inn and explore Chattanooga some more.
IF YOU GO:
Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2 Broad Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402, phone: 423/756 86 87, fax: 001/423/265 16 30, www.chattanoogafun.com.
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum