Chattanooga was once one of the dirtiest cities in the country, thanks to its role in river and rail transportation. But before its industrial history lies a very sad chapter for Native Americans— for us all. Ross Landing was the last site of the Cherokee’s occupation of Chattanooga and is considered to be the embarkation point of the 1838 Cherokee removal on the Trail of Tears.
Over 16,000 Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes at bayonet point and looked on as white men looted and ransacked their homes, and 4000–1/4 of them—died of cold, hunger, and disease on their march to the western lands. By this time, Andrew Jackson’s administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery. In 1839 Ross Landing was incorporated into the city of Chattanooga, and by 1850 it was a boom town “where the cotton meets the corn” as a hub in railway transport. During the Civil War a few decades later, Union forces defeated Confederate forces in the battle on Lookout Mountain, and The Battle of Chickamauga was the second-costliest land battle of the entire war, with 34,624 casualties. History and pride run deep here.
As Steve and I discussed taking this side trip, I felt a little cynicism for having driven through Chattanooga so many times as we traversed to Florida last winter. Why take an additional couple of weeks and the boat when we could have stopped by car much more easily if we had wanted to?! The answer to this sits at the very heart of this whole looping venture: the point is to discover gems which we have overlooked or have not known; the point is to discover these bits through the back door; the point is to delight in small things and in self-discovery.
The river wound through the foothills of the Appalachians, and Red Pearl reluctantly pushed upstream against a strong current at 7 knots with 2000 rpm, past industrial sites and along Interstate 24. Chattanooga has a long river front with a few floating docks (always a good thing around dams, where water levels can fluctuate), but the most picturesque spot was on the concrete wall right beside an emotionally-moving fountain commemorating the Trail of Tears and the iconic Aquarium. We sidled along the wall in front of several Looper vessels with whom we had left the rendezvous, and Mike and Brenda Finkenbinder from Velsignet met us and assisted with our lines—the Looper Welcome! And what to do first in the city?! Docktails! 😉 Everyone brings their own beverage and a snack to share.
We took advantage of our weather window the first day and took a Lyft to—I’m almost embarrassed to admit—the highly-commercialized Rock City on Lookout Mountain. Remember the barn roof media blitz, “See Rock City,” as one drives in the Southeast and Midwest? We wanted to see the panoramic views of Chattanooga and to learn more about the Lookout Mountain Civil War history, and Rock City was a natural. We were prepared for its commercialization—and here we found the first Starbucks on our trip so far!—but not its undeniable beauty. As we followed the flagstone paths around huge boulders and rock cliffs, admiring fauna that we know and love from home, I felt my body unwind and lighten. There is a vista in which one can view seven states, but it was the smaller-scale creativity that caught me by surprise. The project was fashioned, similarly to Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC, by Frieda Carter, whose husband Garnet was a busy and otherwise-occupied businessman. She created and won awards for the rock gardens, in addition to a dozen fairytale scenes tucked into small alcoves in the caves featuring German gnome figurines. Garnet was the advertising brains behind the attraction and, interestingly, the originator of Tom Thumb Golf, now recognized as America’s first miniature golf course.
The next day, with rain and drizzle, we toured the Chattanooga Experimental Whiskey Distillery with Mike and Brenda. We learned about the history and the recipe of the libation. Prohibition of distilling alcohol for commercial trade remained Tennessee law until 2010, and there still remain some dry counties. American Bourbon Whiskey requires a distillation of 51% corn, but the rest of the recipe is open-ended, and this facility boasts 150 different experimental recipes in oak casks at any time, aging and awaiting tasting and assessment. The tour ended with a flight of 6 tastes. Very interesting! Next—our visit to the Moonpie General Store, while listed as one of the top 15 things to do in the city, was a bomb. We discovered that Moonpies, no mater how fresh and local, are NOT delicious!
The Aquarium, whose expansion was part of the 1995 revitalization of the downtown area, was a great way to spend our final day in Chattanooga. The Ocean, The Rivers, and the IMAX are all distinct buildings and each is a small gem. We enjoyed learning about agile and frisky Lemurs, walking amidst butterflies and watching them emerge from cocoons, and petting (small!) sharks and stingrays—and of course, lots of fish and turtles—local and exotic, small and huge. Our fun week ended with the mundane necessities of laundry and provisioning.
This morning we left Chattanooga before sunrise in order to beat the 8:00am closing of through traffic on the river for Paddleboard and Kayak races today. Last night the entire riverfront park filled with small, colorful vessels and their hale and hearty owners dressed in sock caps, wet suits, and flip flops. Fog hovers over the hillside but, thankfully, not the water. Sadly, we are leaving the forested hillsides still before fall color has really begun. However, it’s time to seek sun and warmer temperatures, so off we go! Cruising downstream at 10 knots, we hope make it back to Goose Pond—an 85-mile day with a lock—in time for a great dinner there again.
We said goodbye to Mike and Brenda yesterday, as their unique itinerary includes continued work and the month of February in Hawaii. We hope to meet up again in the spring on the east coast of Florida. Our journey is already delivering on the promise of nice folks whose lives intersect ours—sometimes once, but often repeatedly, lovely friendships formed, the option of myriads of paces and itineraries, and the discovery of kind people everywhere.