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

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