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Streetcars of the Chattanooga Area

Trolley atop Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga

Early Days

The Chattanooga Street Railroad Company, which began operations in 1875, was a mule-powered line running south from the Tennessee River to Main Street (then Montgomery Avenue). In 1881, the line was extended further south to Twenty-fifth Street (then White Street) and in 1885 was extended again to St. Elmo, at the foot of Lookout Mountain. A final extension in 1886 carried it to a point four blocks from the Georgia state line.

A few months later, the Lookout Mountain Incline & Narrow Gauge Railway began operations from St. Elmo up to the northern end of the mountain. Using cables to pull 24-passenger cars up slopes as steep as 33 degrees, the 4,360-ft incline terminated at the Point Hotel. From there, one could travel on the narrow-gauge Mount Lookout Railway that ran along the western cliffs to Sunset Rock and later to Natural Bridge. Both the incline and the narrow-gauge opened in early 1887. (This was the first of two inclines on the mountain.)


The first incline railway passed under the broad gauge railroad on its way to the Point Hotel.

The narrow-gauge railroad hugged the cliffs on the west side of the mountain. (From: Frank Spencer Presbrey. The Southland. Southern Railway Co., 1898. Online at Internet Archive here.)

Narrow-gauge railroad atop Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga area

Narrow-gauge engine emerging from a tight cut and approaching a trestle.
(From: Locomotive Engineering, January 1897, p. 55. Online at Internet Archive here.)

A competitor soon emerged in the form of a standard-gauge steam railroad that would avoid an incline in favor of route that would allow passengers to remain in the same car from downtown Chattanooga to the mountain top. The Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain Railway, opened in 1889, climbed the mountain at an average 3 percent grade over a route that required several miles and a switchback to make the ascent. Although it was a standard-gauge line, it was called the Broad Gauge to distinguish it from the narrow-gauge railroad at the summit. (See 1895 map.)

By the summer of 1891, the conversion of mule power to electric or steam power on Chattanooga's street railways was complete. Also, streetcar service had been extended to the eastern sections of the city, including the top of Missionary Ridge.

In November of 1895, a third railway up Lookout Mountain opened for business. The Lookout Incline and Lula Lake Railway, constructed about a quarter-mile south of the earlier incline, took a short, arrow-straight route from the base to the summit. The one-mile climb required a maximum grade of 72.7%, but it avoided the slower, curving route of the first incline and the long, circuitous course of the Broad Gauge. Known for a time as Incline No. 2, it is now the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, the only surviving railway up the mountain.

Incline No. 2. (From: Railway and Locomotive Engineering, October 1902).

Incline No. 2. (From: Chattanooga, the Mountain City, 1906. Online at Internet Archive here.)

Car on Incline No. 2. (From: Engel's panorama views of Chattanooga and all the battlefields of Lookout Mt.... Chattanooga, TN: L. Engel, 1914. Online at Internet Archive here).

Initially the incline's developers planned to build an electric street railway from the summit station to Rock City, just across the state line in Georgia, as well as Lula Lake, about four miles farther south. Rock City, which had not then been commercially developed, and Lula Lake, which had waterfalls, cascades, and a scenic lake at the top of Rock Creek canyon, attracted visitors despite their limited accessibility. A streetcar line would open up these natural wonders to a wider audience, and supplement the receipts from the incline.

The line was never built. Millions of people did, however, eventually see Rock City, arriving by automobile and bus. Lula Lake received sporadic visits by area residents, along with regular arrivals by the crews of the Chickamauga & Durham Railroad and its successors. (See 1895 map of the proposed Lula Lake extension).

Lower Lula Falls. (From: Chattanooga, the Mountain City, 1906. Online at Internet Archive here.)

The lake and waterfalls are now properties of the Lula Lake Land Trust. (See Lula Lake Trail.)

The first incline, which had become known as Incline No. 1, was abandoned on July 3, 1899. Service on the narrow-gauge and broad-gauge lines also ended the same year.

At the base of the mountain, below Rock City and about two miles south of the state line, was the community of Blowing Springs. There is some indication that the Chattanooga Union Railway extended its steam dummy line from St. Elmo to the vicinity of Blowing Springs sometime around 1890, but, if so, it only lasted a very few years.

To Rossville, Fort Oglethorpe, and Chickamauga Park

A few miles east of Lookout lie the Georgia communities of Rossville and Fort Oglethorpe, as well as Chickamauga Battlefield Park, site of a major Civil War battle in 1863. Most street railway companies thought that having a park at the end of a line was an asset because it would attract fare-paying passengers at times when commuters and business travelers were not filling the cars. Chickamauga Park was especially advantageous because it already existed, was close to the city, and would not have to be company-built.

The first streetcar line to the park was constructed by Chattanooga's Rapid Transit Company in 1900. Its electric cars began in Ridgedale and ran south through East Lake to Rossville, passing just east of that town's railroad depot. After looping through eastern Rossville, they continued south to the park, ending at a place that would later become Fort Oglethorpe. (See 1912 map and 1914 map).

Not to be outdone, the older Chattanooga Electric Railway worked out an arrangement with the Chattanooga, Rome & Southern Railroad, which ran from Chattanooga into Georgia, passing through the community of Lytle at the park's western edge. Essentially, the street railway worked with the railroad to provide through rates via streetcar and train that were competitive with the Rapid Transit Company rates. (See 1917 map).

In 1917 a second streetcar line to Fort Oglethorpe was built by the Chattanooga Railway & Light Company. Following a route east of LaFayette Road, it primarily relied on a private right of way.
Map from "Battlefields in Dixie Land ..." Larger map on separate page

After several mergers and reorganizations of the city's street railways, the new Chattanooga Railway & Light Company emerged in 1909. It quickly upgraded the cars and tracks in its system and began studying ways to improve existing routes and build new ones. One result was a new line through Rossville to Fort Oglethorpe and Chickamauga Park. Completed in 1917, this route used a private right of way that avoided the curves and hills of the older line constructed by the Rapid Transit Company.

Streetcar at Fort Oglethorpe's Post Theatre.

Carline Road

Carline Road in Rossville, on the former route of the Chattanooga Railway & Light Company's interurban line.

Return of the Broad Gauge

The CR&L also built an electric streetcar line on the old Broad Gauge right of way of the Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain Railway, which had been abandoned in 1899. While the steam locomotives that had previously traveled the route needed a switchback on the west side of the mountain, the electric cars did not have the same limitations. The switchback was replaced with a 180-degree curve, eliminating the stop-reverse movement of the steam trains. Cars began operating on the 15-mile route, which came to be called the "Surface Line," in 1913. (See 1914 map).

Surface car line passing under incline tracks, Chattanooga

Surface Car Line tracks passing under incline. (From: Electric Railway Journal, April 11, 1914. Online at Google Books).

After three money-losing years, the owners of the Surface Car line sought to discontinue the service, but local protests kept the operation more or less intact until 1920. In that year the cars ended service up and down the mountain, although trolleys continued to operate on top until 1928.

Today most of the mountainside route of the Broad Gauge railroad has been preserved as the Guild-Hardy Trail, owned and managed by the Lookout Mountain Conservancy. Also, the general route of the Narrow Gauge railroad can be followed by walking the Bluff Trail between Sunset Rock and Point Park near the top of the mountain.

The first streetcar line to Fort Oglethorpe, built in 1900, was abandoned some time after the Chattanooga Railway & Light line opened in 1917. Park City Road now follows part of its route. The second line ended service by 1933 and was also abandoned. Car Line Road in Rossville now runs on a section of its former route.

Suggested Reading:

David H. Steinberg on behalf of the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Chattanooga's Transportation Heritage. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2013.

David H. Steinberg. And To Think It Only Cost A Nickel!; The Development of Public Transportation in the Chattanooga Area. Privately published, 1975.

Alan A. Walker. Railroads of Chattanooga. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2003.

Gay Morgan Moore. Chattanooga's St. Elmo. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2012.

Joseph P. Schwieterman. When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001. Includes a chapter on Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

John Wilson. Scenic, Historic Lookout Mountain. Privately published, 1977.

From: Margaret A. E. Severance. Descriptive and Historical Guide to Chattanooga. Chattanooga: Times Book & Job Office, 1892. Online at Internet Archive here. Georgia's Railroad History & Heritage. © Steve Storey

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