Lost Chattanooga: Underground Chattanooga Uncovered

It began in the 1970s when Dr. Jeff Brown, a professor of archaeology at UTC, popularized an idea of a long forgotten city beneath the current street level of Downtown Chattanooga. The “Underground Chattanooga Concept” was based on visual observations; the tops of obscured brick arches showing at street level, subterranean rooms, and tunnels, ornate millwork, windows and doors located in the basements of some historic buildings downtown. Brown was passionate about the idea of an Underground Chattanooga and hoped that one day there would be enough evidence to create an attraction. He’d soon realize that parts of his Underground were too fragmented and public accessibility was logistically impossible. Dr. Jeff Brown died in December 1980.

Since Brown introduced his concept four decades ago, a local romance of Underground Chattanooga has been well-postulated, is frequently discussed in the media, and is often spun as historic fact by locals. This has led to wild public speculation and rumors about its particulars. The wildest yarn that I’ve run across is a story about the abandoned streetcars still on their tracks below Market Street; a very cool premise, but (sadly) false. There has also been recent talk to place a historical marker to acknowledge the Underground’s existence, even though much of the data remains speculative and unknown.

It’s true that Chattanooga’s frequent flooding in the 1800s through to TVA’s man-made New Deal solution in the 1930s created a palpable liability for the well-being of the citizens of Chattanooga. Flooding was also costly to downtown merchants and manufacturers, interrupting daily commerce and damaging their buildings and goods. Before the Chickamauga Dam, levees along the river were discussed as a solution to lessen the economic impact and protect the general welfare of the city, but the shoreline and wharf yielded too valuable of a commercial resource to be compromised or cut off.

Like most burgeoning 19th century cities in America, it’s likely that street grades were routinely adjusted to accommodate sprawl, population growth, and an expanding infrastructure. One assumes that flooding impacted city planning and building standards. However, there has been no discovery of an official paper trail, engineering plans, maps, newspaper reports or written personal accounts that detail a consequential effort that would substantiate the Underground Chattanooga argument with definitive certainty. In addition, there is no historic photographic evidence of street levels being raised and first floors disappearing beneath the streets. The only clues that scarcely remain are the interpretation of existing physical evidence and oral conjecture.

The Chattanooga Public Library’s collected materials on Underground Chattanooga is surprisingly light. The bulk of the information is articles written over the past 15 years, some news clippings from the 1880s and coursework from Dr. Brown’s classes.

In a Chattanooga Times story dated 1885, the writer suggests an ignorance among citizens and their knowledge of what areas of the city were below and above sea level. It goes on to give elevations of various Chattanooga landmarks and locations in comparison to the low watermark of the Tennessee River. Another article dated a month after a flood in 1886 addresses a petition to bring up the grade on Broad and Chestnut Streets, also on Seventh and Eighth, between Popular and Market. The campaign was a plea from property owners to regrade streets up to the high watermark to specifically deter flooding. About half a dozen properties would be minimally affected at a small expense for damages. There is no follow-up story detailing work done, and if several city blocks were to disappear up to fifteen feet underground, its impact would be far greater and better documented in the press or through surviving reports.  Or, at least, one would think.

Before I go on to present my doubts about Underground Chattanooga, I want to eliminate some targets thought to be part of the affected areas. These locations are often confused with Underground Chattanooga because they are underground.

Beneath Big River Grille, Sports Barn and former car barns 

In 2011, Travel Channel’s Don Wildman went “Off Limits” through the spaces under the old car barns that once housed horses and mules for pulling horsecars. These areas were deliberately constructed as underground stables that had street access and a below grade entrances. It also served as shop space to service the undercarriages of massive streetcars.

The tunnel under the old Miller Bros. Department Store 

The Miller Bros. tunnel was opened in 1951 to connect shoppers with their parking area and annex on the opposite side of Broad Street. It was a customer convenience to shuttle patrons from their parking lot and stores without the visual distraction of competitors like Lovemans, JC Penny’s, Pickett’s and various specialty stores that dotted Market and Broad.

The Lovemans Building

Lovemans has been considered by some to be ground zero for the Underground. Its original documented three stories with basement was completed in 1886 but would burn in 1890. It was replaced in 1891 and its new design added a fourth story. The Lovemans property would expand its building south and add a fifth story by 1910. The basement of both Lovemans stores was used as a department(s) for hardware and other consumer goods. Exterior windows were placed below street level in recessed sidewalk wells to bring in light and adequate ventilation but later filled in. Openings found in the Lovemans basement today are remnants of 125 years of incessant renovations. Many photographs exist of Lovemans throughout its history, including an image of its original 1886 construction during the great flood of that year.

The Hotel Ross 

Originally the Delmonico Hotel, the renamed 70-room Hotel Ross (1925) was built in 1888. Like most Chattanooga hotels, a third of the first floor was used as a lobby, but it also let commercial space for retail shops and services; this included its basement. Architectural fragments and artifacts from a barbershop remained before its recent renovation into the Tomorrow Building.  The hotel sits on high ground and probably never saw much flooding.

The Chattanooga Underground concept asserts that sometime in the late 1880s, an extemporaneous and monumental effort was made by local government and its citizens to raise the grade of the city to combat imminent flooding from the Tennessee River. This meant that every business, resident and property owner in the downtown area were in such despondency and desperation, they willingly elected to bury the first floors of their buildings. First stories would become basements, newly reconfigured second stories would become first floors with new points of public entry. This task was done so expeditiously and without hoopla, that records were nonexistent and newspapers felt little need to report on the activity or its progress.

The over 40-year-old conclusion of the Underground has become part of Chattanooga history itself, resonating in local pop culture and discussed today. But, is there another less sexy explanation for the mystery?

Let’s break it down…

I’ve mentioned a missing, lost or a non-existent paper trail. One might be able to explain the absence of official plans, maps or records as the result of the Hamilton County Courthouse fire in 1910. But it’s hard to dismiss the gross absence of photographic evidence supporting Brown’s theory. Over the last two years, I’ve handled and viewed hundreds of local historic photographs, documents, and artifacts for the amateur history project, Picnooga. In my general research, I’ve kept in my subconscious the Underground story, looking for something that might catch my eye as proof to support or dismiss it. The first year and a half I teetered as a believer and skeptic. But most of the time, Brown’s conviction kept me focused on qualifying the Underground concept as fact. However, with a close examination of photos of the suspected Underground boundaries, I could not find evidence that street levels were intentionally raised.

Establishing the grade

Below, are three buildings on Market Street that have been photographed over the span of 30+ years and survived through the 1880s, when the Underground event purportedly occurred.

The Atlantic Depot was built in 1851. It stood on the southwest corner of 9th Street (MLK Blvd.) until the last remaining portion was raised in the 1950s. As you can see it started out as two stories, and remained a two story throughout its existence.

The Poss Block was erected at 829-831 Market Street in 1873. It was one of the buildings that were constructed soon after the 1871 fire that destroyed nearly two city blocks downtown. The building began as three stories and remained a three-story structure well into the 20th century. The Poss Block was also at the same street level as buildings like Lovemans and W. F. Fischer & Bro. Co. which have an alleged Underground connection. The Poss Block was built 10 years or more before Lovemans and Fischer & Bro.

First National Bank Building was established in 1865. It was located on the southwest corner of Market and 6th Street. Again, there’s no indication of latent buried levels or alterations to this building over its history. Outside of a revolving door of occupants, it pretty much stayed the same for 80+ years.

I’m using these structures to establish a grade base and how Market Street didn’t divert from its topography through the 1880s. I can yield to minor regrading, but there’s no probability that buildings from 9th Street (MLK Blvd.) to 6th and Market Streets were entombed in an organized or impromptu effort to raise the street level. These are areas where Dr. Brown suggested that one could find openings to his Underground Chattanooga.

So… perhaps the present Underground timeline is incorrect? Maybe it happened a little earlier than believed? I focused on that possibility for a long time, which I found three conceivable opportunities to move some major dirt around.

The first opportunity was before 1860. The biggest issue with that scenario is there are less than a handful of buildings that survived from that time period, and none of them are within Brown’s Underground boundaries.

The second opportunity was after the 1867 flood. This flood was disastrous, and the largest Chattanooga has seen in its history. The Tennessee River crested at 58 feet above its normal level, and downtown was underwater four to eight feet. The Military Bridge connecting the North shore and telegraph wires were washed away.  Again, little to no structures survive from that era and photographic evidence doesn’t give enough clues to support a street raising effort.

The third opportunity was after the 1871 Market Street blaze. The blocks between 7th and MLK Blvd, between Market and Broad Streets were practically leveled by fire, which might make a plausible opportunity to raise some streets. Ironically, the fire was the same year as the Great Chicago Fire, which set new standards in construction and planning of cities and abated wooden structures within city centers.

There would be a short window after 1871 to raise streets. The Poss Block presumably was under construction by 1872, and the other buildings marked as Underground possibilities would be built after 1883. The first horse car tracks were laid on Market Street in about 1875, the same year of yet another consequential flood, but the Market Street level would essentially remain the same.

Debunking major grade changes on Market Street and a supposed timeline leaves me with addressing the always-compelling, often-confusing, physical evidence seen and often revealed in the media. This includes dark basements with full-sized windows and sills, decorative arches, loose plaster and lathe, carved newel posts, stone walls, tunnels and doors that seemingly lead to nowhere.

Basements were commercial and accessible to the public

For some time I had an inkling that some basements were utilized as public spaces and therefore required proper ventilation and light. But until I really looked into the history of local architecture, I didn’t realize how basements were utilized as functional and contributive real estate. If you’ve ever seen early 20th century photos of Market Street, you’d observe that space was at a premium. A typical building along Market would have been crammed from basement to the top floor with tenants. Bottom levels were occupied by retail, wholesale and saloons; while offices, doctors, and photographers filled the upper floors.

Many buildings were mixed use in the downtown and old Market Center area. Floors were sometimes situated below grade with large windows that started at street level and below in window wells. A good example of existing buildings with full sized windows that start at grade level is the old Carnegie Library, the Custom House, and the Mayfield Annex. Lost buildings like the Elizabeth Apartments had a sunken level for commercial occupation with apartments above. The old Y.M.C.A. on Georgia Avenue also had a similar sunken first floor. The original Lovemans (Photo below) also had a sunken basement with large windows facing Market Street.

Windows, doors, and wallpaper

Our contemporary misconception of what a basement should look like has greatly confused the Underground Chattanooga issue. As a public trafficked space, basements would be finished out much like the upper floors. This included decorative millwork, plaster walls, and plumbing.

The most often discussed evidence that supports the Underground are exterior basement walls with doors and windows that face exterior walls. These are most likely remnants of filled in exterior walk-downs and window wells. This also explains why many of the tops of arched windows were seen along the United Way of Chattanooga building on 7th Street. Some have claimed that decorative arches would not have been set so low, but there’s only so many ways to construct a brick arch. Arches are also very efficient in carrying heavy loads. Years of editing sidewalks and minor street grading has filled windows and wells, masking their original purpose.

The Lovemans building at 8th and Market Streets is a great example of a common misapprehension of the Underground phenomenality. Along 8th Street are large openings in the basement walls in this 1909 photo. These were most likely windows that filled the space with light and provided ventilation to their basement departments, employees, and patrons. Windows were set in recessed wells. In the same photo, across the street at Fischer-Evans you can see a ramped walk-down to a door along 8th Street. Metal railings also are seen in earlier photographs. The old Hamilton Bank building at 7th and Market also had a walk-down with a railing on its northern facade, as did the newly remodeled Milton Building at 8th and Broad. The old Hotel Patten has retained a ramped walk-down on its south facade. Filled in walk-downs also explain for exterior brick wear on outside walls.

Some Chattanooga basements were clearly a specific commercial building style. Basements like the Mayfield Annex, the Custom House, and the Y.M.C.A basement floors were designed much like the residential New York Brownstone or the Chicago Greystone, and their construction falls into a similar timeline.

Were any areas of downtown raised?

The ungraded lots north of 5th Street and in select areas that were west of Broad created conditions where basements were exposed and at ground level on one or more elevations. Structures were built where front doors met the grade of the road, filling in those areas after 1900. Entombed doors and windows could be easily misconstrued as Underground areas today. An example of that are the car barns between Aquarium Way and 4th Avenues.

Arches and retaining walls

As stated, arches are an efficient way to support a heavy building. Why some structures have open arches that face an ancient-looking retaining wall, I cannot answer with certainty; but more than a handful of buildings downtown are affected. What was the purpose of the stone wall, and when was it built?

The sub-terrestrial arches do not match current or previous buildings facades. The walls might have something to do very early fill and grading. A proper architectural study of the arches and dating the stone walls would shed light and perhaps bury the rest of this mystery.  There’s also a possibility that the room under existing sidewalks was used for coal or city utilities.

Conclusions

There is absolutely no proof that downtown streets were filled as the Dr. Jeffery Brown’s concept suggests. I have no doubt the city and developers tried their best to raise the geography of Chattanooga streets where they could to evade imminent flood waters. The topography also changed with the infrastructural demands of a growing city. However, there was never the massive effort to bury downtown.

Well into the 20th century, Chattanooga’s flooding problem endured. After the 1917 and 1920 floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to survey for a dam to protect the city from floodwater. Levees were still being discussed in the newspapers in 1920, and previous street-raising efforts were never brought up or offered as a modern solution.

Basements designed as commercial space fell out of usefulness by 1915 – 1920. Window wells, walk-downs and other exterior entrances were gradually filled in and forgotten. Leveling the city also filled in entrances and windows that fell below grade. Flooding and the construction of high-rise buildings created more commercial space, which makes a good argument for basement abandonment.

Brown’s concept was solid in the late ’70s and his ideas have endured through the years. Regardless of if you still want to believe in Underground Chattanooga, or not, the story merits an important place in local history.

Photo credits: A special thanks to Deep Zoom Chattanooga for use of the photos in this article.