Very few cities in the nation can claim as close a tie to the railroad as Chattanooga. In large part we have Glenn Miller to thank for this identity; his orchestra recorded the 1940s song, Chattanooga Choo Choo and it was the first gold record in the world and put us on the map. But Chattanooga’s history as a rail town started long before "Tex" Beneke crooned about leaving on Track 29. In 1870 there were 58 industries in Chattanooga. By 1910 there were more than 300.
It wasn’t so much a destination as a connector to some of America’s biggest cities. In the Civil War, it was a strategic city for its central location and developed rail lines, dubbed the “Gateway to the South.” Of course trains are no longer the favored mode of travel, but the Scenic City has done its best to preserve its rich rail history. (The lyrics to the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” are even engraved in the sidewalk in front of the Tennessee Aquarium).
Below are the six best spots for a train ride down memory lane:
• Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum - The term “museum” is really misleading, unless that’s what you call a large, steel engine moving down the track. Instead of static displays, TVRM operates several restored trains on more than 100 miles of track. One of the most popular routes is the 50-minute 6-mile ride to Missionary Ridge, which includes a trip through a pre-Civil War tunnel. But they also offer three- to six-hour journeys to places like Summerville, GA., and the Hiwassee River Gorge from the Etowah TN Depot.
• Chattanooga Choo Choo - From 1909 to 1970 all trains traveling southward passed through Chattanooga’s famous Terminal Station. In 1973 a group of local investors saved the buildings from demolition by turning it into a hotel complex, now on the national historic register and listed with Historic Hotels of America. Ironically it’s not the station from the famous Choo Choo song, a mainly passenger station downtown that couldn’t be saved. Walking into the lobby is like a trip back in time, with departure signs still hanging over original wooden doors with a breathtaking 85-foot freestanding brick dome in the center. The original tracks still run through much of the 24-acre property, on which Victorian train cars turned hotel rooms are parked. A recent multi-million dollar renovation has brought new life to the historic hotel with renovated rooms and grounds, new restaurants, comedy club and live music almost nightly.
• The Terminal Brewhouse - Right across from the Choo Choo Complex stands a brewpub like no other. Housed in the historic Stong Building, owners of The Terminal took on the Herculean task of renovating the triangular building in 2006, which opened in 1910 as a hotel with fancy steam-heated rooms and a café for weary travelers. Through the years the beautiful building gathered a rather seedy reputation. Legend holds it was once a speakeasy and even a house of ill repute. But in the 1940s Chester Davis, a porter at the Terminal Station, saved his tips and bought the building, returning it to a hotel and becoming one of the first black business owners in Chattanooga. Besides a healthy dose of history, today you’ll find delicious food and craft beer, brewed in large steel tanks on the bottom floor. Stop in for a Southsidenstein Stout and hearty fare that ranges from Salmon Salad, to Pepper Smashed Steak to Outstanding Pizza Pie.
• Urban Stack Burger Lounge - Urban Stack also has ties to the railway, housed in the former Southern Railway Baggage Building and just one block from the Terminal Station. It’s actually one of Chattanooga’s oldest buildings circa 1867, and owners Taylor and Mike Monen paid homage to its past by keeping the exposed brick interior, concrete floors and using mostly reclaimed materials from the 19th century for the décor. The 20-plus gourmet burgers are the stars of the menu (including veggie versions and the option to sub chicken), but the craft cocktails (Bacon Manhattan) & Smokin’ Hot Pimento Cheese Dip are worth sampling as well as the Five Dollar Shakes (S’mores). Just not at the same time.
• Lookout Mountain Incline Railway - Opening November 16, 1895, the Incline Railway is an impressive feat of engineering as the world’s steepest passenger train. Powered by two 100-horsepower engines and a pulley system, two cars operating simultaneously pull each other up and down the mountain on a single track, save for a short section of double track when they pass in the middle. The Incline Railway once serviced a luxury hotel atop Lookout Mountain. Local legend holds that the hotel owner couldn’t get access to the road – a two-dollar, four-hour buggy ride – so he decided to build a more direct route. Today the train shuttles visitors up and down Lookout Mountain, allowing unique access to Point Park-a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park only 3 blocks away.