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Chattanooga battles back to pretty prominence

Coolidge Park in Chattanooga has a restored 1895 carousel next to its interactive play fountain. Coolidge Park in Chattanooga has a restored 1895 carousel next to its interactive play fountain. (Tom Thel for The Boston Globe)
By Judith Gaines
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2009

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Nestled in a dramatic bend of the Tennessee River and surrounded by mountain ridges, Chattanooga is a scenic city full of Southern personality. In winter, its moderate climate feels like a balm.

The city of 170,000 offers several surprises. Chief among these, especially to a Northerner, is how much the Civil War remains part of people’s lives. If you drive along Crest Road on Missionary Ridge, for instance, you’ll see war monuments, markers, and plaques scattered throughout an upscale residential area. People have built homes all over this former battlefield, but have left the cannons where the Confederate Army abandoned them nearly 150 years ago.

Another surprise is how attractive Chattanooga is. Once dubbed “The Dynamo of Dixie’’ and “The Pittsburgh of the South,’’ its growth for many years was powered by development of iron, steel, coal, and railroads. But all that industry came at a high price. By 1980, the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare called Chattanooga the most polluted city in America.

This embarrassment sparked a 20-year campaign to clean up and revitalize the city. Today, the effort stands as one of the nation’s most effective public-private collaborations, the engine behind a true civic renaissance. The transformation is so complete that Outdoor magazine has called Chattanooga one of 10 “Dream Towns’’ in the United States, and Fodor’s ranked it the country’s “most overlooked and underrated’’ family destination.

The anchor of this redevelopment is a marvelous new aquarium with the largest freshwater tanks in the nation, sizable saltwater displays, and some interesting side attractions, such as a charming butterfly garden. Nearby are an IMAX theater, a Creative Discovery Museum with interactive exhibits for children, and a boat offering cruises through a nearby gorge called “The Grand Canyon of the Tennessee.’’ The city also takes advantage of its river location with waterside parks, festivities, and a popular riverwalk that extends more than 10 miles from Ross’s Landing Park downtown to the Chicamauga Dam.

This dam and others upstream were one answer to another problem that vexed the city: frequent flooding. But the city decided to go further. It brought in dirt and fill and raised the downtown elevation nearly 10 feet in places. This means that many former first floors of local buildings are now underground and you enter at what was the second-floor level.

The city’s land was once part of the Cherokee Nation, and Ross’s Landing was a trading post run by Chief John Ross. The Cherokees called the area “Chad-na-ugga’’ or “Chat-to-to-noog-ee,’’ which both mean something like “rock rising to a point,’’ referring to Lookout Mountain, the area’s most prominent landmark. A short drive leads to its Point Park, which towers 1,400 feet above the city. Alternately, you can ride the Incline Railway to the mountaintop, then walk to Point Park and back. This railway, built in 1895, is said to be the steepest in the world.

Lookout Mountain is another fount of Civil War history. This was the site in 1863 of the famous Battle Above the Clouds, and many markers and a small museum tell the story. The mountain also boasts Rock City, 10 acres of natural rock gardens.

Point Park is a perfect place to get a sense of Chattanooga’s topography. You can see the curve in the river that cradles the city, as well as Moccasin Bend to the southwest and the mountains that rim the metro area.

Another way to get a sense of the city is to head out on foot, beginning on the north side of town. Check out the shops on Frazier Avenue, and adjacent Coolidge Park with its handcrafted carousel. Then cross historic Walker Bridge, now strictly a pedestrian thoroughfare, and the Holmberg Glass Bridge, where plates of opaque blue glass are suspended dramatically over a highway. This leads to the Bluff View Art District, one of the city’s most attractive neighborhoods.

Here, perched on an 80-foot bluff above the Tennessee, is the Hunter Museum, which claims to contain the South’s largest collection of American art. An outdoor sculpture gallery sits nearby overlooking the river.

The Bluff View Art District is where you’ll find the Houston Museum, with about 15,000 vases on display. Other quirky museums around town include the International Towing Museum, the National Knife Museum, and Dragon Dreams, a collection of 2,000 dragons of all kinds.

The city has its own symphony and opera. But its biggest draws are the bluegrass, country, and gospel performances in venues throughout the metro area, including the Mountain Opry in neighboring Walden. Here singers, banjo pickers, fiddlers, and more gather every Friday for a free evening of traditional Southern mountain music.

Chattanooga is a fine place to sample Southern cooking. For Southern BBQ, my favorite is Sugar’s Ribs, a funky hilltop joint where resident goats keep down the kudzu and outdoor tables offer a view of the city. For downhome ambience and fried chicken, try Bea’s, where the buffet comes to you on lazy susans at the center of community tables. Other fun spots are Nikki’s, for fried shrimp and catfish, and The Boathouse, with an excellent wood grill and a large, covered deck overlooking the river.

For many years, most outsiders knew Chattanooga as the destination for “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo’’ - a 1941 tune by the Glenn Miller Band that became the country’s first million-selling record. Today the Terminal Building, the hub of Chattanooga’s former railroad activity, is a hotel where travelers can stay in a renovated vintage railroad car. A free electric shuttle takes passengers from the terminal to the aquarium and back, with several stops in between.

Unusual accommodations also are available in the Delta Queen, the last overnight passenger steamboat in the country. Now it is a B&B permanently anchored at the Coolidge Park Landing, with small but handsomely appointed cabins and sitting rooms that recall the days when paddleboats churned the nation’s waterways.

Judith Gaines can be reached at gaines.judith@gmail.com.

Related

If You Go

Where to eat

Sugar’s Ribs

2450 15th Ave.; 423-826-1199

www.sugarsribs.com

Bea’s

4500 Dodds Ave.

423-867-3618

Nikki’s

899 Cherokee Blvd.

423-265-2424

Where to stay

Delta Queen

Coolidge Park Landing

100 River St.; 423-468-4500

www.deltaqueenhotel.com

Chattanooga Choo-Choo Holiday Inn

1400 Market St.

423-266-5000, 800-TRACK29

www.choochoo.com

What to do

Tennessee Aquarium

One Broad St.; 800-262-0695

www.tnaqua.org

Creative Discovery Museum

321 Chestnut St.

423-756-2738

www.cdmfun.org

International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum

3315 Broad St.; 423-267-3132

www.internationaltowingmuseum.org

Houston Museum of Decorative Arts

201 High St.; 423-267-7176

www.thehoustonmuseum.com

The National Knife Museum

5924 Shallowford Road

423-228-2656

www.nkcaknife.org

Dragon Dreams

6724 East Brainerd Road

423-892-2384

www.dragonvet.com