The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, More Than a Hotel

All Aboard! Opened in 1909 as Terminal Station, the train depot welcomed thousands of travelers during the golden age of railroads

Chattanooga sits on the banks of the Tennessee River in the Appalachian Mountains, bordering Georgia. The city boasts impressive museums, fun things to do, a vibrant downtown area, and lively shopping and arts districts. Major attractions include the Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo, Lookout Mountain, Incline Railway, the antique carousel at Coolidge Park, and the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After hearing this building’s name and seeing its architecture, I wondered whether we were visiting a train station or a hotel. Well, it’s both. This building was originally a hotel before the Southern Railway acquired it in 1905. Four years later, it opened as Terminal Station and eventually became a major hub transporting more than 50 passenger trains a day. From the time it opened to its closure in 1970, all trains traveling south passed through Chattanooga. Although well-known in the railroad industry, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo didn’t become a household name until the Glenn Miller Orchestra created a song of the same name which was featured in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Terminal Station was saved from the wrecking ball by a group of local businessmen who were inspired by the song and wanted to spare the building from demolition. They invested $4 million before its new grand opening on April 11, 1973, and the beautiful Terminal Station once again opened its doors to welcome visitors to Chattanooga.

Chatanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is among the Historic Hotels of America. Some of the original station tracks still run through the property and sleeper cars have been restored and converted into hotel accommodations. Fascinated by the history of the hotel, I marveled at the antique train and ornate hotel lobby and then perused the surrounding entertainment complex which features two full-service restaurants and numerous bars, two music venues, a comedy club, a distillery plus various retail outlets, and the Glenn Miller Gardens.

Glen Miller Gardens, Chatanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The two-acre Glenn Miller Gardens sits on where the 14 tracks and 7 platforms served millions of train passengers for over 60 years. This beautiful setting is named after the world-famous musician who recorded the Chattanooga Choo-Choo song. Stop and smell the roses while you stroll through gardens. Sit and relax in a rocking chair. Play a game of Jenga (block-balancing game), life-sized checkers, corn hole, bocce ball, and more. The Glenn Miller Gardens is an oasis among the bustle of the city.

Dome of Terminal Station, Chatanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The attraction is located in downtown Chattanooga and the free electric shuttle stops right outside of the hotel. It’s free to explore the hotel even if you’re not a guest but you’ll need some cash if you plan to do some shopping or dining at the complex.

Following a look-a-round at Chattanooga Choo Choo, we drove up Lookout Mountain making brief stops at Incline Railway, Rock City, and Ruby Falls. Since a heavy smoke and haze hung over the city during our visit several years ago, we decided against exploring these attractions further.

Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Opened in 1895, the Incline Railway transports passengers up the steepest part of the mountain that at its extreme reaches an incline of 72.7 percent, making it one of the steepest passenger railways in the world. The original coal-burning steam engines were replaced by two 100-horsepower motors in 1911 but other than that the railway hasn’t changed much in its more than 120 years of operation.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaving Lookout Mountain we stopped at Sugar’s Ribs for take-out. The Carolina style of barbecue is highlighted by a menu full of slow-roasted meats and wood-fired sides. But the restaurant also serves tacos and potato nacho plates, salads, and “mini” versions of your favorite main dishes.

Sugar’s Ribs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This spot on Missionary Ridge serves up great mountaintop views (on clear days) and tasty smoked spareribs moist on the inside and crunchy on the outside. The prices are completely fair for the quality and quantity of food you receive. A half-slab of spare ribs was $15.95 with a side.

Also took home tasty pulled pork. We paired the delicious meat with Texas pintos, turnip greens, miniature cornbread, and a trio of sauces. All the sauces are “Carolina-style” with a vinegar base.

Sugar’s Ribs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I especially enjoyed the “Hot Lips” sauce with jalapeño, habanero, onion, and garlic. This sauce was not unlike the salsa verde you might find at a Mexican restaurant, but honestly, I didn’t find it hot enough to require a formal request to use it. My favorite of the sauces was the spicy, vinegary “Great Sauce.” Whatever sauce you require, Sugar’s has something you’ll enjoy.

Worth Pondering…

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Hi there Tex, what you say
Step aside partner, it’s my day
Bend an ear and listen to my version
Of a really solid Tennessee excursion

Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? (yes yes)
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
Can you afford To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I’ve got my fare And just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Then to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin’ eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

—Songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, first recorded 1941 by Glenn Miller