The Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga.


Tennessee's fourth largest city, Chattanooga enjoys a rich and often contentious past. The city lies on a bend in the Tennessee River near a natural opening in the southern Appalachians. Surrounded by mountains and ridges, the river's banks formed a secure, temperate, and fertile plain well suited for human habitation. Archaeological excavations reveal that Native Americans first settled the site more than eight thousand years ago. Various tribes inhabited the land in the following centuries, and around A.D. 1300 the area became a center of Mississippian culture. In the mid-1500s Mississippian natives interacted with the region's first white visitors when the expeditions of Spanish conquistadors camped nearby. With the advent of the tribal era in the seventeenth century, the area fell under the control of the Cherokees, who dubbed the spot Chado-na-ugsa, meaning “rock that comes to a point,” a reference to nearby Lookout Mountain.

Permanent white settlers came to the site in the early 1830s and established Ross's Landing, a trading post located near the foot of present-day Broad Street on the Tennessee River. The community thrived, and in 1839 its occupants incorporated the settlement as the town of Chattanooga. Starting with just fifty-three families, the village quickly grew into a center for river commerce. The development of the railroad furthered the town's progress. The city's first line, the Western and Atlantic, arrived in 1850 and initiated an immediate economic boom. Other lines followed, and by 1860 Chattanooga was a vital link in the region's rail system.

Known as the site “where cotton meets corn,” Chattanooga served as the doorway to the Deep South. Whether by river or rail, much of the cargo passing in and out of the region traveled through the city. Warehouses overflowed with goods in transit, and freight sometimes spilled into public streets. Throughout the period, citizens retained strong social and economic ties to the Deep South. Many felt the city shared that region's social, political, cultural, and commercial tendencies. Such feelings became apparent in 1861 during Tennessee's secession crisis. Though most of East Tennessee remained loyal to the Union, Chattanoogans voted overwhelmingly to join the Confederacy.

Given the city's strategic importance, Chattanooga immediately became a center of military activity. The first Confederate troops arrived in late 1861 to protect the community from East Tennessee Unionists. By 1863 the junction was a critical Southern administrative center and supply depot. Soon it was also a target of Federal forces. As Union armies moved through Tennessee that year, they increasingly turned their attention toward the city. Even Abraham Lincoln recognized the town's importance and predicted, “If we can hold Chattanooga and East Tennessee, I think the Rebellion must dwindle and die.” (1)

In the fall of 1863 Union forces launched a major attack on the city, which resulted in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Residents, terrified by the conflict and the prospect of Yankee rule, fled the city en masse. Most would never return. The battles at Chickamauga and Chattanooga inflicted over forty-seven thousand casualties on both armies and resulted in a costly Union victory. Northern forces secured Chattanooga that November and thus began a lengthy and lucrative occupation.

The Union army transformed the sleepy river town into a sprawling fortified military complex. Within weeks, Chattanooga became one of the North's most important supply and transportation centers. The town also served as staging point for Sherman's March in Georgia and South Carolina, and Northern troops worked around the clock erecting dozens of warehouses, stockyards, and hospitals to support his vast army. Chattanooga also became an important link in the Union's rail system, and military engineers constructed shops and manufacturing facilities to help rebuild the South's shattered transportation network.

While in Chattanooga Union officers made note of the community's location and of the region's abundant resources. Of particular interest was the town's proximity to rich iron deposits in East Tennessee and North Alabama. Following the war, a determined handful of these officers set about to exploit these resources and transform Chattanooga into the “Chicago of the South.” Men such as Henry Clay Evans, Hiram S. Chamberlain, and John T. Wilder built successful manufacturing and commercial enterprises, and their success attracted other northern entrepreneurs.

Chattanooga's northern elite not only dominated the local economy; they also maintained local political hegemony. Northern Republicans controlled the city's government for over two decades following the Civil War. Over time, however, they found themselves outnumbered by local southern voters, and increasingly northern leaders had to rely on black voters to maintain their control. As a result, black Chattanoogans possessed an extraordinary amount of political power, and they used it to gain schools, patronage, and a voice in municipal government. Black residents regularly won seats on the town's powerful board of aldermen, held important positions in city government, and even served on the local police force.

During the 1880s Chattanooga was an industrial boom town, and it quickly became the center of both national and international attention. Local boosters led by Chattanooga Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs successfully lured investors from both sides of the Atlantic, and real estate speculators drove the price of local property to astronomical levels. The carnival-like atmosphere was short lived, however, for property values soon crashed, and the local iron and steel industry, beset by competition from nearby Birmingham, collapsed.

The Panic of 1893 only increased the city's economic woes, and throughout the 1890s Chattanooga experienced hard times. Hardest hit were the city's black residents who, in addition to widespread poverty, also suffered the loss of their political franchise. New Jim Crow laws, combined with a decline in local Republican fortunes, robbed local blacks of their votes and denied them their hard-earned voice in local government.

Recovery came to Chattanooga in 1898, when thousands of soldiers passed through to the city on their way to the Spanish-American War. Following the war, civic leaders ensured continued growth by developing a balanced economy based on banking, insurance, manufacturing, and tourism. Perhaps the greatest boon to the city came in 1899, when three local men, Ben F. Thomas, Joseph B. Whitehead, and John T. Lupton, secured the exclusive bottling rights to Coca-Cola. Chattanooga Coca-Cola Bottling grew to become one of the city's most successful businesses, pouring millions into the local economy, and its founders and their descendants have consistently been among the city's most ardent philanthropists.

As with most of the nation, Chattanoogans endured poverty and hardship during the Great Depression. Their plight was eased, however, in 1933 with the arrival of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Chattanooga became a center for the TVA's development efforts, and local construction projects such as Chickamauga Dam employed hundreds of local residents. World War II brought an end to the depression in Chattanooga, and the city's factories soon reached new levels of productivity. The local manufacturing boom continued after the war, with Chattanoogans producing everything from Chris-Craft boats to Buster Brown socks. The city's industrial growth brought residents a new level of prosperity, but it also inflicted considerable environmental damage. By the late 1960s, Chattanooga was among the nation's most polluted communities. Civic leaders responded with strict pollution control laws and the city became a successful example of environmental regulation.

By far the greatest challenge facing Chattanooga in the postwar period has been that of desegregation. During the 1950s local blacks joined the national movement for social and political equality, staging “sit-ins” and other means of nonviolent protest. In March 1962 federal courts ordered the desegregation of the city's public schools. The following year, Mayor Ralph Kelly opened all city-owned facilities to blacks. Local businesses, under pressure from Kelly and other civic leaders, soon followed suit. Although local blacks universally hailed such moves, they were strongly resisted. As a result, racial tensions remained high throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and the city experienced a number of violent racial incidents.

Modern Chattanooga seems to have overcome many of its past problems. Although racial divisions still exist, the community now boasts an expanding black middle class and a growing appreciation for its African American heritage. The city's government, once the archetype of machine politics, is now cited as a model of public administration and planning. Much of the credit for this transformation is due to the efforts of the Lyndhurst Foundation. This nonprofit body, established by members of the Lupton family, is now a guiding force in the city's development and deserves much of the credit for the community's recent renaissance. Today, as visitors tour the new Tennessee Aquarium, they stand within sight of Ross's Landing, and bear witness to the city's burgeoning promise.

Suggested Reading

Timothy P. Ezzell, “Yankees in Dixie: The Story of Chattanooga, 1870-1890,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Tennessee, Knoxville, 1996); Gilbert E. Govan and James W. Livingood, The Chattanooga Country, 1540-1976: From Tomahawks to TVA (1977)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Chattanooga
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018