images/voice_uploads/chatanooga-tn.gif">Whether called Chat-to-to-noog-gee by the Chickamauga, reportedly meaning ‘mountain rising to a point’, or later Ross’s Landing, by 1969 the Environmental Protection Agency named Chattanooga something else; “the dirtiest city in America.”
How dirty had the East Tennessee metro area become?
Drivers had to use their headlights at midday to cut through the black air, and workers often took a fresh shirt to the office so they could look clean all day.
Today, in what has amounted to a transcendant act of civic willpower, Chattanooga, Tennessee has transformed itself into a model green city.
Cyclists and canoeists can enjoy the fresh air along miles of public access, an Audubon Society Sanctuary protects wildlife in he midst of a bustling manufacturing zone, the nation’s largest fleet of electric buses shuttles one million visitors a year along 20 stops, arrays of solar panels on public buildings feed electricity into the Tennessee Valley Authority grid, a graywater collection system helps water the landscaping, art lovers can marvel at clear views of the surrounding countryside as they stroll from gallery to gallery, and families relax at riverside parks and shopping districts or take an educational outing to the world’s largest freshwater aquarium.
The city’s dramatic setting - just below the most southwestern escarpment of the Appalachian Mountains and within the great Moccassin Bend of the Tennessee River, has made it a natural hub for rail, water, and air transportation. During the Civil War the already burgeoning city was pummeled, but quickly recovered and became a major steel producer for the next century.
The devastating announcement of its status at the bottom of the national heap of dirty places didn’t stop the environmental degradation overnight.
Attitudes, however, did.
Civic leaders began by procuring about twenty acres of riverside property to begin what would become a network of trails and parks, fishing piers and pedestrian bridges that would become Tennessee Riverpark.
Counting the many infrastructure improvements, the city’s financial investestment in the cleanup amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars over a 15-year span.
By virtually any measure - economic, ecological, and the return of civic pride - the results of the investment were wildly successful, and have generated another $120 million initiative of downtown improvements.
The city of over 150,000 - and metro area of nearly half a million - will soon see boat docks and pedestrian piers, more waterfront parks and dining, new retail outlets, an addition to the aquarium, and doubling the size of another prestigious landmark, the Hunter Museum of American Art.
One of the most critical components of the recovery has been the emphasis on outdoor and eco-recreation.
A group called Outdoor Chattanooga has consolidated information about the myriad opportunities available in and about town, everything from amphibious river tours to whitewater rafting, kayaking, skeet shooting, fishing, bungee jumping, horseback riding, mountain biking, hang gliding, tubing, and caving.
Outdoor Chattanooga hooks up visitors with tour companies, putting together imaginative weekend packages that pair lodging with a sampling of outdoor sports like tandem hang gliding, a raft and bike tour and others.
The Chattanooga Audubon Society owns several parcels of wilderness, including 18-acre Maclellan Island, right downtown in the Tennessee River. Visitors are permitted to come by boat and land on the island where they can hike the trails and see the abundant bird and animal life. Elsewhere the local society manages Audubon Acres, a 130-acre bottomland with hiking trails on South Chickamauga Creek, and the 460-acre David Gray Sanctuary on Sale Creek.
Just beyond the city two notable nature areas are located together, the Tennessee Wildlife Center and Reflection Riding Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Both display the enormous variety of Appalachian plant species.
The Wildlife Center is more hands-on, with a sanctioned wildlife rehabilitation hospital and raised boardwalk through quiet bog lowland, while Reflection Riding is an exquisite memorial park that invites visitors to commune quietly with 300 acres of meadow and forest.
Drive, walk or bicycle the narrow scenic road through the park to see the 1000 known plant species; twice a year in April and September the gardens holds special native plant sales.
Even on the somber side, Chattanooga beckons with its history; in September, 1863 the Battle of Chickamauga saw 35,000 lives lost on both sides, the second bloodies battle of the war after Antietam.
The stakes were seen to be justifiably high because the North considered Chattanooga to be the key to turning the tide of the war in its second phase.
The Confederate Victory staved off the end for at least a few months.
The Chickamauga National Battlefield memorializes the momentous occasion with free tours throughout the summer.
A second major battle, this one won by the North, took place on the rock outcroppings above the town and gave the Union a way into North Georgia.
The Battle Above the Clouds on Lookout Mountain is today marked by a serene and beautiful wooded promontory with views over the river and the city; a breathtaking place that will become the Moccasin Bend National Archaological District. This Point Park area holds instructive historical displays and the residential area outside the park makes for good touring on foot or bicycle.
Contact information: Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau; www.chattanoogafun.com or 800-322-3344.
Outdoor Chattanooga; www.outdoorchattanooga.com.
History of the city’s transformation; www.rivercitycompany.com.
Tennessee Aquarium; www.tnaqua.org.
Audubon Properties; www.audubonchattanooga.com.
Reflection Riding Arboretum & Botanical Gardens; www.reflectionriding.org
Tennessee Wildlife Center; www.chattanature.org.