Chattanooga: So Much More than the Choo Choo

Glenn Miller gave Chattanooga some extra attention when he performed the big-band swing tune “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in 1941 about its rich railroad history

Nestled in the southeast corner of Tennessee, Chattanooga might not leap to mind as a likely place to visit. A strategic river and railway crossroads during the Civil War and site of brutal military battles, as a result, the town boomed and then busted over the course of the 20th century.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From 1909 to 1970, all trains to points south passed through Chattanooga’s famous terminal which was designed by a 24-year-old architectural student from New York. The terminal’s first plans were modified at the behest of the president of the Southern Railway System to emulate the National Park Bank of New York.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related: The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, More Than a Hotel

Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Terminal Station stands as part of the world-famous Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel located in the heart of Chattanooga. The 24-acre complex boasts two hotel buildings, on-site dining, retail shops, tranquil rose gardens, and much more.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the wake of an ugly EPA report, in 1969 Walter Cronkite declared it the “dirtiest city in America.” But visionary revitalization, coupled with abundant natural beauty, a burgeoning cultural scene, and rich history, now put Chattanooga near the top of the list as a slightly off-the-beaten-track destination.

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

With world-class rock climbing, hiking, cycling, and water-sports opportunities, it’s one of the South’s best cities for outdoor recreation. It’s gorgeous, too: just check out those views from the Bluff View Art District. It’s also forward-looking with free electric buses, miles of well-used waterfront trails, and pedestrian bridges crossing the Tennessee River. All this makes it hard to credit its reputation in the 1960s as America’s dirtiest city.

Related: The Ultimate RV Travel Bucket List: 51 Best Places to Visit in North America

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just ten minutes from downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, rising along the upper rim of the city, Lookout Mountain is rich in both Civil War history and natural wonders. The miles-long mountain is home to three world-famous attractions: the Incline Railway, the steepest passenger railway in the world; Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in the country, and Rock City, a mountaintop ‘city’ of massive, ancient rock formations with a birds-eye, “See the Seven States” panorama.

Incline Railway

Hike miles upon miles of trails where you’ll encounter waterfalls, caves, and blooming wildflowers; cross the famous Swing-A-Long bridge that spans nearly 200 feet; learn more about Civil War history at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park; or catch a sunset from 1,652 feet above sea level at Lovers Leap. With countless activities on the menu of fun atop this iconic mountain, it’s easy to see why Lookout Mountain is one of Chattanooga’s top-rated tourist attractions. 

Chickamagua and Chatanooga National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though it first appeared on a map in 1795, Lookout Mountain’s name likely comes from the Creek term for “rock rising to a point,” and research suggests the mountain was inhabited by Native Americans for centuries. The mountain was the scene of the 18th-century “Last Battle of the Cherokees,” a battle between American frontiersmen and the Chickamauga Cherokee, a Cherokee band that had long resisted increasing American encroachment into their territory. 

Chickamagua and Chatanooga National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On November 24, 1863, the pivotal Civil War Battle of Lookout Mountain was fought on the slopes which are often covered with dense fog in the wee hours of the morning. The so-called “Battle Above the Clouds” was won by Union forces, enabling them to lift the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. By the 1920s, local entrepreneurs turned the scenic, storied mountain into a tourist destination. 

Related: Death Knell of the Confederacy: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete your visit to Lookout Mountain by climbing the ridge at a 72.7 percent grade along “America’s Most Amazing Mile” aboard the Incline Railway. The one-mile-long single-track railway opened in November 1895 and is both a National Historic Site and Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Explore Point Park, part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park located steps from the railway station at the mountaintop, site of the 1863 Battle Above the Clouds. The Battles for Chattanooga Museum features a multimedia, 3-D projection map presentation.

Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Incline Railway provides an easy and spectacular commute up and down Lookout Mountain, which looms over Chattanooga with views of the Tennessee River winding through the city below, and the verdant hills and valleys of the Appalachians stretching to the horizon.

Related: Fun Outdoor Getaways You Can Easily Hit from 25 Cities

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in a curve of the wide and winding Tennessee River, Chattanooga lies between the misty Appalachian Mountains and the lushly forested Cumberland Plateau. With such a stunning natural location, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this small city has become a major hot spot for outdoor- and adventure-minded visitors.

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 in 1941 by Glenn Miller