BiblioChatt: the Underground Railroad in Chattanooga, TN

The story of the Underground Railroad in the Chattanooga area | Photo by NOOGAtoday

Editor’s Note: BibiloChatt is a series for which NOOGAtoday editors research reader-chosen, history topics using only resources from the Chattanooga Public Library.

Chattanooga has a long history of railroads, but one that isn’t spoken of as much is the Underground Railroad. A reason for this may be that the Southern system of freedom networks operated in much the same manner, but it was not called the Underground Railroadthat terminology was used north of Ohio. For the purpose of this story, we will refer to the network as the Underground Railroad.

What was different?

  • Instead of “conductors,” leaders or fugitives were called “pilots” or “guides.”
  • The places along the network where fugitives stopped were known as “safe houses,” not “stations.”
  • The pilots in the Southeast used their own codes and signals that were understood only in this region.
  • Many of the pilots were also slaves.

Local networks

A map of Chattanooga's Underground Railroad routes
Map of Underground Railroad routes in East TN | Photo on pg. 45 in “Chattanooga: Tennessee’s Gateway to the Underground Railroad”

Northeast to Kentucky

The Ridge + Valley route passed through East Tennessee north to Kentucky — there were many hiding places and safe houses along this route.

In Chattanooga, members of the Beck family were the most active operatives. Unfortunately, due to their illegal behavior, there isn’t a lot of information about the Becks, but we do know that they gave up land for a cemetery that could be used by residents of the Civil War-era refugee campthe land is on the north side of the Tennessee River.

North to Kentucky

Another route, which went up through the Sequatchie Valley, was known for a remarkable pilot named Richard Flynn of Flynn’s Cove, whose code name was “Red Fox.” Richard was an experienced hunter + woodsman who knew every inch of Chattanooga up to Kentucky. With the help of other operatives along the way, he led hundreds of fugitives to freedom.

1 stop along the Sequatchie Valley route was Richard’s house, which was surrounded by a maze of trees he’d cut down that only he and his family could find their way through.

After passing through the Chattanooga area, the path to freedom continued north to Bradley County, into Kentucky, then to Ohio, and ultimately to Ontario, Canada.

Safe houses + hiding places

The Griffits house | Pg. 39  in “Chattanooga: Tennessee’s Gateway to the Underground Railroad”

Bradley County

This area had some of the most unique strategies for providing safety to fugitives — they are known as “subterranean houses or artificial caves,” and were created on hillsides in forests that were not often traveled.

These underground hiding places were basically square or oblong excavations that were covered with strong poles across the top + those poles were covered with planks, rails, or more poles that acted as a makeshift roof. To camouflage the area in case of travelers, the space was then covered with leaves, shrubs, or pine. A trap door covered with pitch, moss, and leaves would also be installed to one corner of the roof.

By the time the structure was complete, a cavalier could ride over one and not tell the difference between it and the rest of the land.

North of the Hiwassee River

According to oral tradition, there was a farmhouse in McMinn County that had rooms built into the walls, perfect for hiding fugitives.

Just across the McMinn county line in Loudoun County was the William Giffits House, built in ~1854. The Griffits family members were leaders in the Quaker community, and their house is recognized as an important safe space for slaves seeking freedom. Plus, in the 1830s, the same family provided refuge to Cherokees in the 1830s escaping removal via the “Trail of Tears.”

Also in Loudoun County, there are at least 2 known caves that housed fugitives. In a cave near Friendsville, William J. Hackney provided refuge, provisions, and any other assistance needed to escape slaves + white men looking to exit the confederacy. The other cave is located near the Greenback Community — a large Black community occupied this area post-Civil War.

Sequatchie Valley

Prominent pilots in this area included Polly Hand, James S. Garrison, and J. W. Farmer — they rarely made contact with fugitives, but instead kept caves and fence corners stocked with food and provisions.

Some years back, TVA archaeologists found a cave in Dunlap with hollowed rocks inside containing meal.

Keep learning

Bessie Smith Cultural Center

The Bessie is a great place to go to delve deeper into the history of enslaved people in Chattanooga. There are artifacts, timelines, and interactive exhibits. The museum us open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. + Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.

Books I consulted at the Chattanooga Public Library

  • “Chattanooga: Tennessee’s Gateway to the Underground Railroad” by E. Raymond Evans
  • “African Americans of Chattanooga: A History of Unsung Heroes” by Rita Lorraine Hubbard