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Reading 1: The Railroad Helps Build a Town: Chattanooga, Tennessee

Among the Creek Indians, who for centuries controlled the area where today Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama come together, the word "Chado-na-ugsa" meant "rock that comes to a point." The name referred specifically to what is now called Lookout Mountain, a peak from which one can see for hundreds of miles. Chado-na-ugsa was a landmark well known to generations of Creek and Cherokee, who fished and traveled by the Tennessee River and who hunted and trapped in the surrounding mountains.

In the early 19th century, Daniel Ross, a Cherokee Indian of mixed white and Indian ancestry, founded a trading post at the site of present-day Chattanooga. His son John, who became Chief of the Cherokee Nation, expanded the business. After American Indians were forced west on the infamous Trail of Tears, whites renamed "Ross’s Landing" Chattanooga and in 1839 incorporated it as a city.

Businessmen moved quickly to capitalize on the city’s geographic advantages. In the decade before Chattanooga was incorporated, railroads had already begun to spread along the Atlantic coast. Businessmen, investors, and politicians were seeking ways to reach the farmers in the Tennessee River Valley, who produced large quantities of grain and livestock. Transporting these products to different markets proved difficult. The Tennessee River, which flowed toward the Mississippi, turned dangerous just west of Chattanooga, and rough roads through mountains made land travel expensive and slow.

In the late 1830s investors in Georgia began to build tracks which would bring goods to Savannah, the state’s major port. From there the products could be shipped around the world. They were racing to catch up with their main rival, Charleston, South Carolina, which already received goods through a 140-mile supply network of rails that continued to grow. In order to compete, Georgia started building the Western & Atlantic Railroad leading north and west from Savannah.

By the mid-1840s the Western & Atlantic was approaching Chattanooga, whose port on the Tennessee River made it a logical site for a rail center. Residents of Chattanooga recognized the impact the railroad would have on their town. One citizen wrote to a friend in 1847, "If Georgia fails to finish the road or make the appropriation for its completion all is flat in Chattanooga, but the general belief is that she will do it. And then we expect a rush to this place."¹

The first train moved across Georgia into Tennessee in 1849. A speaker at the celebration of the event expressed the significance of the ceremony: "With united hands, let Georgia and Tennessee join on this occasion in mingling the waters of the Atlantic and the Mississippi...." He further noted that the railway would "open the way for us to the far West by Nashville and shall establish communication with the North through the valley of the Holston [River]."²

As the terminus of the Western & Atlantic Railroad and a main junction for other lines, Chattanooga was the keystone in the southern rail system. Over the next decade, other rail lines began purchasing land in order to construct tracks north, east, and southwest out of Chattanooga. The first passenger station was built in 1858, and the Union Station and Car Shed, for freight shipping and for the maintenance of the railroad cars respectively, were constructed the same year.

Because of the growth fostered by the railroads, Chattanooga began to develop into a city. Hotels, restaurants, and saloons appeared for the convenience of travelers and tourists. Warehouses for grain, timber, cotton, and other raw materials were built near the rail yards, as were corrals for holding livestock. Businessmen created factories for iron working, furniture manufacturing, and textile production, then shipped their products out on the rails. These businesses drew more people to Chattanooga; as the population increased, more streets and lots for new homes were laid out. Shops, schools, and churches appeared, as did offices for doctors, lawyers and government agencies.

The Civil War temporarily halted this growth. Chattanooga’s strategic location made it a key site for military operations for both North and South. Some of the hardest fought and most deadly battles of the war were fought in and around Chattanooga at places called Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Lookout Mountain. Union troops more often controlled the rail lines in and out of Chattanooga, but Confederates often damaged or destroyed the tracks in an attempt to halt the influx of federal soldiers and supplies.

Within a year of the war’s end, Union troops had rebuilt the rails and the city’s rapid growth resumed. Over the next 40 years Chattanooga became one of the leading examples of the industrial and commercial revolution that characterized the "New South."

Questions for Reading 1

1. What were the advantages of building railroads through Chattanooga in the 1840s?

2. How did people in Tennessee River Valley travel and transport goods before railroads were built? What were the disadvantages of these methods of transportation?

3. Why was Chattanooga considered a good location for a rail center?

4. Why did cities compete for railroads?

5. What were some of the ways in which the railroad impacted Chattanooga?

6. Why was Chattanooga such an important strategic location during the Civil War?

Reading 1 was compiled from Miranda Roche, "Market and Main Streets Historic District" (Hamilton County, Tennessee) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1992; and Gilbert E. Govan and James W. Livingood, The Chattanooga Country, 1540-1976: From Tomahawks to TVA (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977).

¹Gilbert E. Govan and James W. Livingood, The Chattanooga Country, 1540-1976: From Tomahawks to TVA (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977), 130.
²Govan and Livingood, 132.


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