Riverfront Revival

Chattanooga was once known as the dirtiest city in America, but now its attractions along the Tennessee River sparkle, and the tourists are coming.

November 20, 2005|By TOM UHLENBROCK | TOM UHLENBROCK,ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

The girls were in softball jerseys, and their families were everywhere.

They lined up at the doors of the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and filled the Southern Belle riverboat for an evening cruise. They beat the heat by running through the spray of a river park fountain and startled the other tourists in Ruby Falls cave by using its acoustics to amplify their battle cry:

"Who are we? Crushers! Who are we? Crushers! Who are we? Crushers!"

The National Softball Association chose Chattanooga for a fast-pitch-division World Series this summer -- yet another indication that the city has raised itself from a smoldering mess to one of the New South's top family vacation destinations.

Even Walter Cronkite might want to visit now.

The trusted CBS newsman stunned many residents in 1969 when he announced that the Environmental Protection Agency had named Chattanooga the "dirtiest city in America" for its air pollution. But the proclamation shouldn't have come as a surprise. The gritty air from industrial pollution had forced motorists to drive with their headlights on at noon.

Chattanooga cleaned up its air and the polluted Tennessee River, too, and now leads the nation in another category -- riverfront rebounds.

The completion last spring of a three-year, $120 million waterfront project marked the end of nearly two decades of work that has revived both sides of the river once lined with weedy lots, abandoned warehouses and rusty rail sidings.

Now the riverfront is home to the aquarium and its IMAX theater, the expanded Hunter Museum of American Art, the Bluff View Art District, the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge over the river, a public pier and mooring area, the Creative Discovery Museum for kids and a renovated antique carousel, all linked by walkways lined with gardens, art and fountains.

To reunite the river with the downtown, the city gained control of a four-lane state highway between them and narrowed it to a pedestrian-friendly, two-lane parkway with a passageway and waterfall-filled reflecting pool tunneling beneath.

Much to see

Chattanooga is Tennessee's fourth-largest city, with a population around 150,000. Most of its attractions were within walking distance of my room at the historic Read House hotel, which recently completed its own $12 million renovation and became a Sheraton. A free electric shuttle connects the riverfront, downtown and the Choo Choo several blocks away.

Yes, there is a Choo Choo in Chattanooga -- the train immortalized by Glenn Miller rests outside a restored 1906 depot, which is now a Holiday Inn that rents rooms in the parlor cars and serves dinner in the diner. Guess what song the singing waiters sing?

Lookout Mountain looks out over the city and has its own share of attractions, including Ruby Falls, Rock City and the Incline Railway, billed as the world's steepest passenger rail line.

Chattanooga sits on a bend of the river in the southeast corner of Tennessee, on its border with Georgia, in the southernmost reaches of the Appalachian Mountains. The Cherokee Nation inhabited the spot until they were sent packing on the Trail of Tears in 1838.

Muscle Shoals blocked steamboat traffic downstream of the city, so it never became an important port. But the railroad arrived in 1850, making Chattanooga a vital north-south link.

In 1863, the Battle Above the Clouds was waged on Lookout Mountain, with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant directing the victorious Union forces and opening the way for the capture of Atlanta and Sherman's March to the Sea.

The Confederates held the high ground and tilted their cannons down to repel the blue-clad soldiers charging up the hillsides. The cannonballs rolled meekly out the ends. Point Park on the mountain's edge marks the spot where Union soldiers hoisted their flag, to the cheers of their comrades below.

I had three days to see all this, and started off my first night with a tactical error. I planned to dine on prime rib on the Southern Belle, but arrived a day early. It was Pizza Night, and the boat was filled with kids and their families, many in town for the softball competition.

I almost jumped ship early, but a crew member assured me that the "bar closed" sign would come down after we were under way on the two-hour excursion. The pizza was good, although we were limited to two slices per trip through the line.

I sat with the parents on the top deck, enjoying the scenery. There were no softball cheers or chants; the girls spent their time playing cards and fiddling with their cell phones.

Bigger aquarium

Other cities have used aquariums as the centerpieces of riverfront redevelopment, with varying success. The Tennessee Aquarium was the nation's largest freshwater aquarium when it opened in 1992. Twelve million paying customers later, the aquarium unveiled a $30 million sister building this spring with a saltwater reef as its primary exhibit.

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