Lookout Tennessee: Are you inclined to Incline?

Incline 1

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One of the world’s steepest railways offers panoramic vistas, a hands-on peek into history and – for some – the opportunity to prevail over personal challenge.


There is somethIng about entering the sixth decade of one’s life that makes one do silly things – you know, all those scary things that even in daring youth and certainly not in prudent middle age, we would ever consider doing. Some call it the middle-aged crazies, but I am not sure that I qualify as middle aged any more. So my adventure on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway has more to do with that list of 100 places to eat in Alabama or 100 things to do before you die … or just doing those things that we never got around to doing. This is a cautionary tale of silly challenge and ridiculous personal triumph.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The Incline railway, overlooking Chattanooga, Tenn., is billed as “American’s Most amazing Mile.” built in 1895, the railway uses trolley- style rail cars to shuttle passengers up the steepest part of lookout Mountain, reaching a 72.7-percent grade and putting it very near the top of the world’s-steepest-railways list. The highest overlook on the mountain is the observation deck at the Incline’s upper station. For most Chattanooga tourists, riding the Incline is a must-do activity.

But in my 40 years of visiting the city, as guest of a local family and occasionally as a tourist, I had never been tempted to ride the Incline up Lookout Mountain. I made many excuses: that I knew my way up the mountain by car, by several different routes even … and that, after all, I was not obliged to take in all the tourist attractions. I even whined to myself that I had seen plenty of dramatic views of Chattanooga already. These were all legitimate, but in the dark of night when the fear dragon incinerates all of our excuses, I knew the real answer – I was afraid. I had heard tales told, accompanied by great snorts of laughter by my Chattanooga friends, who reported sitting on the Incline car behind nervous tourists and making up stories about when the cable broke or when the brakes failed. all bogus, of course, but it made the tourists crazy.

My fear of heights is well remembered in my family – I was the one who charged boldly up the steps of the Pyramid of the Moon outside Mexico city, only to stall at the first landing and wail for my father to hire a helicopter to get me down. humiliating! I have crept, crab-like, along the backs of observations decks overlooking scenes of great beauty from rock city to new york city, venturing only the most timid glances at “the view.” on the other hand, I am the only one among my family and friends who has ridden in a glider and in a hot-air balloon. The balloon ride was a 40th birthday present from a friend – how could I refuse? yes, I had the ropes from the gondola in a death grip, but, by golly, I was up there. talk about attraction/ aversion behavior!

Two Chattanooga inclines were built in the late 19th century to encourage early tourist traffic on the mountain and, aided by a broadgauge railroad on the mountain itself, were to deliver guests to the big hotels, first the lookout Mountain Inn that burned in 1905 and then the “castle above the clouds,” the lookout Mountain hotel, now covenant college. The modern Incline is the heir of the second mountainside railway and, in many ways, it has changed little in more than 100 years.

Of course the cars and cables and tracks have been replaced many times; of course there has never been an accident on the Incline, of course people have been married on the Incline and many Chattanoogans, like my friends, ride it to work and school daily. My rational brain knew all the comforting assurances, but my fear kept breathing in my ear with its dragon breath: “It will slip off the cable and you will be flung from here to Asheville, N.C.” Yipes.

On the ride up, my traveling companion and I fearlessly seized the front seat, certain to get the best view. as the car pulled us higher and higher I was amazed at not only the spectacular vistas of the city, but also the more immediate and amazing views of the wild, thick vegetation and volcanic rocks protruding from the mountainside nearby. It was that last hundred yards, that 72.7-percent grade, however, that took my breath away – literally. It was that span of track, just before the upper station, where, I confess, I studied the sky. as we pulled ever so slowly into the station and then docked, I did not, I repeat, did not, claw my way over my fellow passengers to exit.

My exit was definitely less than graceful, but I managed to maintain my fragile dignity despite walking with rubbery legs that spun and wobbled. of course I did tell my traveling companion that she would need to return alone to the bottom of the Incline, retrieve the car and drive up and get me because, surely, I could not go back down that track. She smiled and offered to buy me an ice cream cone, which I refused, not yet trusting my digestive track to hold to its cables either.

My friend guided my trembling limbs past the lovely mountain homes that line the street to Point Park, where confederate artillery was stationed during the “Battle Above the Clouds” in 1863. From that vantage point, Southern guns rained death down on the Yankees below. believe me, I understood how those Yankees felt, because I sort of imagined myself hurtling down the mountain like a hot ball of iron and landing – ker-splat.

An hour or two later my legs had stopped trembling, my eyes had lost that wild and vacant stare and my heart had returned to operate within my chest again. and I was able to return to the Incline and ride it peacefully to the bottom. I’d like to tell you that I opened my eyes, but just being back on the train was courage enough for that day. My friend, who looked, told me the part of the ride that scared me was not nearly as thrilling descending as on the ascent. I wouldn’t know. I contemplated Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga, the “glorious cause,” and breathed my way down, proud of myself for the accomplishment and bravery in the face of implacable fear.

I treated myself, and my patient friend, to ice cream – at the bottom of the ride. I even looked back upon the entire experience with real pleasure. I had seen magnificent views, when I looked, and I had learned more of the history of the mountain. I had broken no bones and lost no hair – and all of that is something to be grateful for in one’s sixth decade. heck, I might even try hang-gliding off the mountain next.

If you go:

GettIng there: The station at the mountain’s base is located in the historic St. Elmo community, at 3917 St. Elmo Avenue, Chattanooga, TN 37409. The upper station is at 827 East Brow Road, Lookout Mountain, TN 37350.

Hours: 8:20 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Monday-Sunday

PrIces (round trIp): Adults, $15; Children (ages 3-12), $7; Seniors (ages 65 & up) and people with disabilities, $7.50. Buy tickets at ridetheincline.com/pages/ride.

Look around: From the lower station – Explore St. Elmo’s collection of unique shops, restaurants and attractions, all within a few blocks of the Incline. You’ll find brewery tours, hand-blown glass, artisan galleries, an indoor climbing wall, therapeutic massage, hand-dipped ice cream, fresh-made burritos and other dining.

Atop the mountain – The upper station features panoramic views of the Chattanooga Valley from the highest observation point on Lookout Mountain. Browse the gift shop and try the homemade fudge. Be sure to visit the many points of Civil War interest, the Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum and Point Park, just a few blocks from the station. Consider checking out Rock City and Ruby Falls, too. All-in-one packages for the Incline, Rock City and Ruby Falls are $47.90 for adults and $24.90 for children.

More InformatIon: 423-8214224 or ridetheincline.com