Atlanta & some Chattanooga Choo Choos
Updated: Jul 5
“Ah laayeft mah keys eeen mah caarrr,” said Jay in his gentle southern drawl.
We were at the beginning of a circular tour that would take in Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nasvhille, Memphis, New Orleans and back to Atlanta, all within eight days to put together a new tour combining the great musical cities and railroads of Deep South USA. Jay was my local guide for the trip, Sales Director of the local company that would help me make it work. A big guy with a big heart and gentle nature, Jay was the perfect companion and interesting company, adding great insight and the occasional bit of local flavour I would have otherwise missed. I would wager Jay was in his mid-60s at the time of our journey, which meant that he would have known the Deep South prior to the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as living through times of great upheaval and change. That first morning we had visited Margaret Mitchell House, commemorating the author of ‘Gone with the Wind’ and we had just spent half an hour or so at a curio called Cyclorama, a huge cylindrical painting depicting the Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War. The plan had been to get on the road to our next stop, Chattanooga, but we were destined to spend longer in the Cyclorama car park than in Cyclorama itself waiting for a locksmith. Thankfully, we’d had a decent breakfast of Southern specialities that would follow us around the tour – grits, biscuits and gravy. It sounds disgusting to most Brits, I imagine, a type of scone with white sauce poured over it and a side dish of polenta. That’s the closest I can get to describing my first Deep South breakfast and, well, when in Rome!
The locksmith arrived to find a way into Jay’s car. He knew what he was doing, this dude. Watching him break in you got the feeling that he had taken a lifelong hobby and turned it into a reputable profession. Top man! We were grateful to be back on the road and bound for the first leg of our roadtrip.
I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels and been shown around hundreds more. Hotel rooms tend to have pretty much the same stuff in them and you would think it would be impossible by now to get excited about a hotel. Then once in a while along comes a special one. There was nothing particularly special about the rooms at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel. They were functional, set within a number of modern blocks attached to the main historic building. In fact, at the time of our visit I thought some of the rooms probably were in need of a little attention (and they’ve had a refurbishment since, I might add!), but it was everything else that made the hotel special. Pardon me boy, but there is no track 29 anymore. For a country built on rail, the US passenger rail system has shrunk dramatically to a few long-distance lines and commuter services during decades where road and air travel usurped rail to the point where most Americans won’t consider rail travel an option. I once had a conversation with a representative of Dallas Tourism who swore blind that Dallas did not have an AMTRAK train station (it does), that there was no rail link to her city (there is) and that nobody in the USA travels by train (erm, she had a point there). No choo choos have steamed into Chattanooga for a long time, but Chattanooga Terminal Station was saved from the wrecking ball in 1973, reopening as a hotel and visitor experience. The hotel reception is the former ticket office, set within a rather grand booking hall. Out back between what was the station building and the accommodation blocks are tracks on which are positioned Pullman sleeper carriages that can be booked for a supplement, plus a model railway and a restaurant with singing waiters. The electric bus terminal is situated adjacent to the hotel, offering free, green transportation to downtown Chattanooga within minutes. What’s not to like, I ask you?
There are still working tracks around Chattanooga, thanks to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, whose volunteers first stored, then restored locomotives on site since the 1960s and who built a line on which to run heritage rail excursions. From the railroad’s Grand Junction station, the 6 mile round trip chugs across the Chickamauga Creek, through the 986 feet long Missionary Ridge Tunnel to the railroad’s sheds, the engines spinning on a turntable before making the return journey. They had clearly been warned about the arrival of a geeky Brit (who? me?!) as the train ran just for me that day, plus they let me sit in the cab with the driver and also opened the engine sheds so I could get a whiff of the grease and rust of restoration in progress.
Across town is another track of note. From St Elmo station the Lookout Mountain Incline Railroad describes itself as “America’s Most Amazing Mile”. The current funicular was built way back in 1895 as a tourist railway to link Chattanooga with Lookout Mountain, a significant Civil War site where raged the “battle above the clouds”. With the steepest incline at 72.7%, it’s certainly a ride with a difference, with great views and attractions at the top enabling you to while away a few hours. We didn’t have hours to while away though. Jay was waiting for me at the top, ready for the next leg of our road trip, heading through Tennessee to Lynchburg.
Lynchburg. The name might ring a bell with a few of you? It has stared across the bar at me on many occasions, sometimes in good focus, sometimes not so. Yes, Lynchburg is home to Jack Daniel’s Distillery. We enjoyed an informative tour with a really engaging guide, explaining how the distillery makes its own charcoal and crafts its own barrels, which differentiates JD from its competitors. Only one thing was missing from the tour and that was a tasting of the fine spirit itself, as Lynchburg is in a dry county. Yes, I got told everything I needed to know about Jack, got to smell the process, but Jack went missing at the end. Sod’s Law, as I believe that since then they’ve somehow started doing tours including a tasting, but that day I had to make do with a thirst-quenching homemade lemonade. Cheers! Let’s get back on the road, Jay!