The history of Underground Chattanooga in Tennessee

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Several Chattanooga buildings have underground spaces. | NOOGAtoday archives

Good Monday morning, friends. It’s Chloé, and I thought we could start the morning with a look into local folklore because  BiblioChatt is back. 

I’m about to give you all details on the story our readers voted they wanted to learn about most — Underground Chattanooga. Remember, with BiblioChatt, we are reporting based only on documents from the Chattanooga Public Library, whose history team we want to thank. Y’all are the best. 🙏

The tale that many people hear is that the old Chattanooga is buried below today’s downtown streets. 

That may bring to mind images of something like Underground Atlanta (which is currently undergoing renovations) that has been popular as an underground entertainment district. It feels like a city under another city with easily-connected corridors.  

So, the question is do we have that here? Is there a labyrinth of tunnels under today’s downtown that date back to the 1800s? The TL:DR answer is: eh, sorta?

Floods in the 1800s, early 1900s  

Part of the misunderstanding (and what makes the topic mythical) is that there aren’t many early documents about what happened in the 1800s. Newspaper clippings are sparse. 

But the story starts with the Tennessee River, which devastated Chattanooga with floods during the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

  • 1867: The river rises 30 feet above its normal banks, and — according to a 2012 article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press — this prompts townspeople to “quietly and steadily” raise their street level by 3-15 feet. (Any idea how big 30 feet really is? For perspective, imagine a traditional school bus standing up vertically.)
  • 1885: By this time Chattanooga had 25,000 residents, at least 20 factories, 10 hotels, two schools and a pump house that supplied water via 15 miles of wooden pipe. Oh, dear.
  • 1938. Floods continued through 1938, with the worst ones happening in 1867, 1875, 1886 and 1917, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. 

Protecting from floods 

The earliest news articles we could find at the Chattanooga Public Library are from 1875.

Articles from the Chattanooga Times in March of 1875 reference a meeting of “our best citizens” to discuss the “question of protecting the city against high water.”

Some suggestions on how to do this included the idea of a levee. 

“A resolution requesting the Board of Mayor and Alderman to direct estimates of cost of levee, and also, of raising grade of streets to high water mark, and requesting the opinion of engineers of the feasibility of either plan were adopted.”Chattanooga Times article, March 1875

Also in 1875, an “amateur engineer” wrote a letter to the editor with ideas about how to prevent “disasters like 1847, 1867 and 1875.”

He suggested making Cameron Hill and its ridges a desirable place to live by taking dirt from its height and using it to raise the grades of Market, Railroad Avenue, Chestnut, and Poplar streets.

“Many persons would inquire if I intend to make cellars out of stores?” the “amateur engineer” wrote. “I would, to that say, that every storehouse and residence in the above-described area, both brick and frame, can be raised any necessary height as has been done in Chicago and elsewhere.” 

He said that floods wouldn’t be a problem if the grade of the city were more uniform and that would also lead to a better sewage system and future improvements to the entire city. 

In that same paper, City Engineer Robert Hooke wrote that there had already been “a tendency to build up the portions of the city that have been overflowed and some progress has been made in that direction.”

He said that should “be checked” until it’s sure that’s practical and that raising the streets above the high water of 1867 would be expensive, but it would enhance the city and improve sewage. 

Hooke went on to write about how high a levee would need to be successful, and that it’s easier to show the feasibility of building one than it is to figure a way to pay for it. He ended on sort of a bummer note.

“Considering the [meager] income of the city and its limited population, it is highly probable that nothing intended to protect the city from floods will be done soon, and in a few years improvements will be going on in the portions of the city below high water, the same as they have in the past.”

In a newspaper clipping from 1875, there’s a small note that says the street grade had not been raised at this time. 

That’s all we could find about this at the library until 1886

According to an 1886 news article, petitions circulated in support of higher street grades on Broad, Chestnut, Eighth, and Seventh streets. The article said there was “universal demand” for it. 

“The petitions pray the City Council to raise the grades of all the streets named above the high watermark of 1875. Although the petitions were not put in circulation until yesterday afternoon they were numerously signed by the leading property owners on different streets. It is expected that nearly all the property owners on the different streets will readily sign and use their influence to have the grades raised. The work can be done now at much less expense than ever again and the change of grade would not affect half dozen persons, all of whom could be compensated for actual damage at a small expense.” 

In 1889, there’s a news article that mentions a city agreement to start paving downtown streets, and it states that some business owners have said they will pay to have their block paved. 

But, we couldn’t find anything between 1886 and 1889 about whether streets had been raised. 

1970s discoveries 

Underground Chattanooga came up again in newspaper archives in 1978, when Dr. Jeffrey L. Brown, who was an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at UTC, started studying it, according to a news article, headlined “Old downtown buildings may have 2 stories below street.” 

Brown said at a weekly Rotary meeting, according to the article:

  • Because of heavy flooding in the last part of the 1800s, the townspeople raised “the lower part of town above the flood water.”
  • Dirt + rock were brought in to raise the street level and that the original thoroughfare is below Market Street.
  • Digging shows that the dirt-rock filling and street profile are “easily distinguishable” from newer ones.
  • Businesses on Market Street have “all sorts of windows and doorways which lead out into nothing.” 
  • It’s possible that the basement areas are earlier first stories of 19th Century buildings. 
  • It’s possible those first floors had cellars beneath them, which would mean there were two stories of buildings below the ground. 
  • Much study, excavation, work and time” was needed to confirm this. 

In 1999, another news article quoted UTC’s Archaeology head, Dr. Nick Honerkamp, as saying, “They simply raised the ground over part of the city. Ninth and Market Streets were raised nine feet and represent the most radical change.” 

2012 + 2015 – alternative ideas

In 2012, Chattanooga Times Free Press reporters Pam Sohn and Kate Harrison wrote an in-depth article about Underground Chattanooga that included details about the floods, the options discussed to prevent future flooding and the remaining clues that point to the existence of Underground Chattanooga. 

According to the article:

  • Townspeople raised the town piece-by-piece, starting with four streets downtown. Eventually, a 40-block area rose about one story. 
  • Despite the impressive nature of the changes, the story “wasn’t even in the consciousness of Chattanooga for years,” Chattanooga archaeologist Nick Hornerkamp said. 
  • What remains of Underground Chattanooga are essentially disconnected basement rooms.
  • The Sports Barn’s basement, where there’s a running track and exercise equipment now, is part of Underground Chattanooga. 

In 2015, Chattanooga’s PBS station, WTCI, released a short film about Underground Chattanooga. That same year, founder of history site Picnooga David Moon wrote an article, based on two years of research focused on photographic evidence, and offered another theory about Underground Chattanooga. 

At that time, Moon said that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest a concerted effort to raise the town. He said further explanation is needed, and that — just like Brown did in the ‘70s — he’s putting his ideas out there.

Moon’s explanation of what happened was about “the topography [changing] with industrial demands of a growing city.”

According to a 2015 Nooga.com article by Sean Phipps, Moon also said:

“It was all about light and ventilation. Space was at a premium until about 1920, when high rises started going up. Up until then, basements were utilized, and in some cases some of them were constructed half-underground.”