Lookout Tennessee: All Aboard

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Recapture the romance and adventure of train travel’s glory days while riding the rails on a rolling museum.

story by KATHRYNE SLATE MCDORMAN | photos by BARBARA ADKINS and Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

Among my earliest memories is that of the Lionel model train set that surrounded my cousins’ Christmas tree each year. It whistled and wound itself over bridges, through tunnels and around tiny trees. I was fascinated. Among those of us of a certain age, trains have long been a source of  mystery, yearning and romance.

They meant going somewhere, moving and adventure. Trains captured the imaginations of movie makers, writers and musicians. They settled the West in innumerable films, inspired songs such as the gospel tune “This Train is Bound for Glory” and the more contemporary “City of New Orleans,” and helped shape the image of restless Americans always looking for the next frontier to conquer.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Trains helped define the post-Civil War “New South” in the cities closest to Lookout Mountain

– Atlanta, Chattanooga and Birmingham. Chattanooga and Atlanta were important rail cities before the war, one of the reasons William Tecumseh Sherman was so proud of himself in 1864 when he burned the latter. It is Chattanooga that has its own song memorializing its railroad glory, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” (1941). The song celebrates steam locomotives that plied their goods and transported passengers all over the nation from the 1880s to the 1940s. Not surprisingly then, it is in Chattanooga that the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum has heralded the era of trains. Founded in 1961, the museum has collected locomotives and cars donated by various companies that sent their trains across the South. It claims to be the largest working historical rail line in the nation, a “rolling museum.” These engines and cars are lovingly repaired, restored and put back to work on various excursion trips offered year round.

Not long ago, my traveling chum and I decided we needed yet another adventure exploring Lookout Mountain. We had ascended it on the Incline, descended through it to see Ruby Falls and now it was high time to be “comin’ round it” behind the awesome locomotive power of herds of white horses.

On our first train ride, we sampled the shortest excursion, the Missionary Ridge Local. As it pulled us into deeply wooded rills and ridges, our imaginations filled that landscape with native Americans, who on foot and horseback first roamed and hunted there. They were replaced by images of blue- and gray-clad young boys, many carrying squirrel rifles as tall as they were, cautiously edging their way through the forest. With names like Missionary Ridge and Chickamauga, who can resist the call of history in this place?

We neared the terminus of our first ride, a turntable which literally spun our locomotive around, and the nearby railroad restoration shop. Our guides explained the painstaking maintenance and care these monstrous engines require.

Upon our return, our minds turned toward the brave souls who built railroads, from those who initially cleared the land, the legendary, muscular spike drivers, to the engineers who designed these enormous machines, the sight of which, it is alleged in early 19th-century accounts, caused women to faint and grown men to cry “huzzah!

That trip merely whetted our appetite. We longed to hear the conductor shout “all abooorard” again. One of the longer excursions called the Chickamauga Turn offers us a chance to continue our sentimental journey. We arrive at Grand Junction, journey proud and eager, and embark upon the first trip of the season. As we mingle with fellow passengers in the traditionally furnished waiting room of the museum’s Terminal Station, we are impressed with the crisp uniform of our conductor, Trevor Lanier, as he ushers us into the coach and our Pullman seats before lunch.

We depart the Tennessee Valley Railroad yards, once again into the woods, and from there venture into an assortment of urban sights, some lovely, some not. A sampling of America’s backyards passes before us – the only permissible form of Peeping Tom-ism I know. One especially creative junkyard we pass features an unintentionally arranged metallic pas de deux between an old sedan upended against the front of a school bus.

These scenes are quickly replaced by ball fields filled with youngsters who stop to gape at the train, whose passengers gape back, and the Chattanooga Zoo, whose denizens were presumably unimpressed. The sight of the Chattanooga National Cemetery, second in size only to Arlington, takes our breath away. As the TVRM brochure foretold, “our route reflects a diverse window into Americana.” Indeed.

Our luncheon experience aboard the dining car proves to be extraordinary. We are called to lunch by a white-jacketed lad tapping a small, melodious xylophone. Our chef, David Duncan, having enjoyed a long career as a TV chef in Knoxville, was lured to the Pullman Company to oversee restoration of derelict Pullman cars. He discloses that he is now old enough, and “perhaps foolish and bold enough,” to know the history and to enjoy the challenge of taking on such an enormous task. He unabashedly declares that the train is “a time machine” that provides therapy for all who remember the luxuries afforded by train travel.

Duncan also indulges his love of trains by creating fine meals in Traveler’s Fare, Car #3158, which was built for the Southern Railway System in 1924. In 1969, the Pullman Company donated it to the museum, where it has been modernized at great expense by, among other things, replacing the old wood-burning stove with a commercial gas one and installing a modern dishwasher.

Duncan exudes enthusiasm and love for this car and pride in the quality of food he serves. Our first impression of the diner is delightful; tables set with white cloths and napkins and a full, formal complement of silverware accented by fresh flowers. We are served in courses on genuine crockery. We begin with a fruit medley featuring sliced mangos, followed by a turkey and Swiss sandwich served on a buttery croissant, accompanied by freshly made vegetable soup, potato salad and slaw. Dessert is a scoop of vanilla ice cream on chocolate cake. Everything we eat is delicious, served by staff with manners from the Victorian era and the balancing ability of high-wire performers.

A separate car, the Eden Isle, a wood-paneled car available for private parties, is attached for this trip. The Mathis family from Huntsville, Ala., is honoring a special birthday. The table is set for about a dozen family and friends who are in a celebratory mood.

After lunch we are given time to explore the tiny town of Chickamauga, Ga. The town was founded in 1891 near the site of the famous 1863 battle of the same name. Chickamauga is the oldest military park in the United States. Founded in 1895, the park covers 12 square miles of terrain where Southern forces won a reprieve and delayed the coming disaster and surrender.

Our train makes a separate stop at Wilder Observation Tower in the park. Here, our railroad museum Civil War re-enactor, Jonathan Shields, gives a spirited presentation of battle strategies and paints a convincing picture of the key importance of Chickamauga and Chattanooga in the collapse of the Southern cause. He is dressed as a Confederate soldier, decked out in earth-toned jean wool – a rough and completely authentic fabric (80 percent wool, 20 percent cotton). Shields, who wears this uniform for all of his presentations, even during the hottest days of summer, confesses his admiration for the men who endured the misery of battle and the utter discomfort of living (and dying) conditions shared by both sides in the conflict.

Our return journey passes too quickly, for we have surely slipped back in time. A time of civil war, alas, but also a time closer to our own, when train travel flourished.

Trains, however, retain their place in our culture’s mythology and sense of romance in ways modern air travel has not achieved. “You can’t hop a jet plane like you can a freight train,” sings a bard, in a lament for those free-spirited days.

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum helps nurture the gentle nostalgia of the older traveler while exciting the imaginations of youthful enthusiasts like Max Mathis, his family’s honoree. Mathis has been fascinated with trains since he was a toddler, according to his mother. “I love the feel of the train, the cars swaying, the jingle of the bell and the scenery passing by,” Mathis says.

The trip to Chickamauga is especially exciting since he has studied the Civil War in school. He requested that his 13th birthday be celebrated aboard the Eden Isle. Someday in his future he will savor the memory of a special day spent aboard a time machine that just keeps rolling along.

If you go

GETTING THERE: The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is at 4119 Cromwell Road, Chattanooga, TN 37421
OFFICE HOURS: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
MORE INFORMATION: tvrail.com; 423-894-8028