Reliving History in Chattanooga: Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and Civil War Battlefields


By Jeff and Virginia Orenstein

A visit to Chattanooga is an opportunity to experience history.

One of the impressive sculptures at the Hunter Museum of American Art’s River Gallery Sculpture Garden. | Jeff Orenstein

Few cities in the nation are as closely tied to railroads and the Civil War as Chattanooga. An enjoyable exploration of this Tennessee Valley town shows that railroads and the Civil War have defined what Chattanooga was — and still have a major influence today.

The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad reached Chattanooga in 1854. A decade later, the town’s railroads would be embroiled in the Civil War, both a strategic pipeline and target of the battle between the North and South. Battles in and around Chattanooga were decisive in the defeat of the Confederacy and the eventual end of the war, and railroads played a prominent part in both.

When the war ended, the railroads in the region, as well as Chattanooga itself, were in shambles both physically and financially. As the 19th century progressed, recovery in this “gateway to the South” proceeded apace and brought a railroad revival that carried commerce once again to the growing city and linked it with Atlanta and points north.

Today, the city, still laced with rail lines, celebrates its heritage with a first-rate operating railroad museum and numerous Civil War battlefield monuments and national parks interpretative centers and historical sites.

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, 6 miles from downtown, operates more-than-100-year-old steam locomotives pulling vintage passenger cars and gives riders a realistic taste what it must have been like in the Golden Age of railroading. One of its routes tunnels under Missionary Ridge, the site of a major Civil War battle.

To get a good sense of the carnage that took place around Chattanooga in the 1860s, a visit to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Visitors Center or Lookout Mountain is a must-do for visitors in search of history.

Contemporary Chattanooga is an interesting city to visit with a bustling and revitalized downtown riverfront and an excellent aquarium, a good art museum and, of course, the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex named after the 1940s song made famous by Glen Miller.

Delivered in 1904, “retired” after a half-century of freight hauling, Southern Railroad #630 now hauls passengers on scenic excursions at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. | Jeff Orenstein

Getting there

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and the battlefields require a car for access.

  • By air, Chattanooga International Airport (CHA) is 3 miles from the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and 9 miles from the downtown Chattanooga riverfront. It is served by four airlines.
  • By train, the nearest Amtrak station is in Atlanta, 114 miles distant.
  • By car, Chattanooga lies at the intersection of I-75 and I-24. The museum is 31 miles north of Dalton, Ga., and 105 miles south of Knoxville.

Before you go, check out:

When you are there for a short trip:

  • Chikamauga | Jeff Orenstein

    Visit the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Visitors Center in suburban Fort Oglethorpe and drive around the surrounding battlefield.

  • Ride the Missionary Ridge Local (6-mile round trip) at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.

If you have only two or three days:

Must-sees for a short stay are:

  • Exploring downtown Chattanooga’s museums, restaurants and shops
  • Visiting the Tennessee Aquarium downtown
  • Exploring Lookout Mountain

If you have several days, enjoy:

  • Taking a cruise on the Tennessee River
  • Visiting Rock City/Ruby Falls and exploring Lookout Mountain
  • A longer train ride into the mountains at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (check schedule)
  • The Chattanooga Choo Choo complex

Ginny O’s tips for dressing the Simply Smart Travel way

Dress for riding the train at the railroad museum and for touring the battlefields in a comfortable, casual and seasonal way. The city and its attractions are fairly laid back and even though Chattanooga is known as the gateway to the South, the Deep South’s typical formality in dress is not omnipresent.

Downtown Chattanooga’s many bridges over the Tennessee River are a prominent part of the city’s downtown. | Jeff Orenstein

This destination at a glance

Over 50 advantage: The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and its train rides are comfortable, accessible and relaxed. Battlefield visitor centers are accessible, and most monuments and battlefield sites can be viewed from a vehicle or with a short walk.

Mobility level: Low.

When to go: The best time to visit Chattanooga is from September through November. Fall color is an attraction in mid-October, and into early November the crowds are gone and temperatures are still mild. By December, it gets cold and snow can interfere with mobility.

Where to Stay: There are many national hotel chains around Hamilton Place and downtown.

Special Interests: Civil War, railroads, U.S. history

Jewish Chattanooga, Civil War and Railroads

Jews and the Civil War

The Civil War divided American Jews in the 19th century as much as any Americans. It is a safe generalization that almost all southern Jews supported the Confederacy and most northern Jews sided with the Union. Their views on slavery followed a similar path, and a slavery debate among Jewish intellectuals raged during the conflict.

The time-honored ritual of the engineer, conductor and crew members synchronizing watches and comparing notes for the trip still takes place in front of Grand Junction Station at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. | Jeff Orenstein

Jews volunteered to fight on both sides of the war, and many died in the process. An estimate by early 20th century Congressman Simon Wolf was that Jews in the Union forces numbered about 8,400 and in the Confederate forces at about 10,000. While other estimates differ, it is safe to say that Jews were represented in the armed forces of both sides in numbers greater than their 0.5 percent of the general population.

There were nine Jewish generals in the North and several in the South, according to author Norman Finkelstein. Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Judah Benjamin to be the first attorney general of the Confederacy on Feb. 25, 1861.

Six Jewish soldiers in the Union army received the coveted Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery. When the war ended, Jewish soldiers returned to their homes to rebuild their country and their lives.

In a controversial move, in 1862, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered every Jew in his military district covering a large section of the central southern states to leave within 24 hours. When he was president, he admitted that it was a mistake, and Grant appointed more Jews to public office than any previous president.

Chattanooga Jews

Chattanooga is not a very Jewish city, with a Jewish community of about 1,500 out of a total population of 173,000. Jews first settled there just before the Civil War. The first temple was organized in 1866, and land was soon secured for a Jewish cemetery. Today, there are two congregations and a Jewish Federation.

Two of the city’s most prominent Jews were Adolph Ochs and George W. Ochs, the former as editor of the Chattanooga Times, and the latter as mayor and president of the local chamber of commerce, the board of education and the library association. They became publishers of The New York Times and the Public Ledger in Philadelphia.

Jews and Railroads

Jews didn’t have a major role in the management of early American railroads, although they played an important part in raising the money to build most of them.

Jeffrey and Virginia Orenstein are travel writers from Sarasota, Fla.


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