published Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Chattanooga History: People of varied backgrounds helped grow Walden's Ridge

By Joseph Petree

Early Walden Ridge pioneers endured the rugged terrain and harsh winters in their new home. The stories told by living witnesses or ones handed down from their forebears tell of the early days on Walden Ridge and the development of the town of Signal Mountain.

Starting with a purchase of a thousand acres from Elisha Rogers' land grant on Walden Ridge in 1848, James C. Conner built a log cabin and moved his family by ox-pulled wagon up the W Road to their new home. The road was rough, scarcely more than a trail. Farm life on Walden Ridge was work from sunup until sundown. The Conner family was caught up in the "War Between the States" and struggled for survival but returned to farm life after the war.

Many victors in that conflict fell in love with the area and returned to enrich Chattanooga and the developing community on Walden's Ridge. Referred to as "Carpetbaggers," these inventors, entrepreneurs and civic-minded citizens contributed to area heritage.

Gen. John T. Wilder, originally from New York, recognized the potential of coal-rich Tennessee because of his foundry experience in Ohio and Indiana. After the war, he brought his inventive skills to Tennessee and set up several steel-related businesses. He built a home on Roan Mountain which expanded into a resort. The hotel straddled the North Carolina border with a line on the floor to indicate the division between states since liquor was legal in Tennessee but not in Carolina.

In 1889, veterans from both sides met in Chattanooga to discuss creating a military park near Chickamauga. Wilder was elected president of the Chattanooga Memorial Association. Wilder Tower was erected to commemorate his leadership. He also served as postmaster and mayor of Chattanooga as well as two years on the first board of directors of Chattanooga University (now UTC). In 1912, he built a home on the brow of Signal Mountain where he had set up a signal corps during the Civil War. The home was later destroyed by lightning.

Also in 1889, 1,000 lottery winners won 25-by-100-foot lots in Adolph Ochs' planned town, Timesville, the first on the mountain. Located in a wilderness area bordering Sequatchie County, the town never materialized and would better have been called "Dreamsville."

Andrew Jackson (A.J.) Gahagan, born in North Carolina, went to Kentucky to enlist in the Union Army and rose to the rank of captain. After the war, he settled in Chattanooga and served as mayor during the 1870s yellow fever epidemic. Instrumental in founding Erlanger Hospital, he was president of its board of directors for 12 years. He also served on the commission for building the Walnut Street Bridge. Because of his love for children, he set up the Gahagan Fund to help poor children on the mountain get a high school education.

In the early days, coal mining was one of the few jobs available on Walden's Ridge, but mining became unprofitable in the 1950s. Evidence of abandoned mines can still be seen. Old-timers remember miners, with coal-blackened faces, walking down Taft Highway after their day in the mine or the slow pace of following heavy-laden coal trucks down the mountain.

Moonshining was part of life on the ridge, and remains of stills have been found on most of the streams. Walden's Ridge whiskey, particularly that of "Uncle Joe Miles," was enjoyed all the way to the halls of Congress during Prohibition. The last report of moonshining was in the 1970s. Pressure from revenuers, the price of sugar and another lucrative green product eliminated whiskey making on Walden's Ridge (I think!).

The financial success of C.E. James, son of a Centenary minister's widow, originally from northeast Tennessee, earned him the title of "Jay Gould of the South." With minimal education but extraordinary business savy, he built the first Hales Bar Dam, which brought electricity to Chattanooga and much new industry to the area. James loved Signal Mountain and was the town's first mayor. Among his other achievements was a trolley line up the mountain (now Highway 127) in 1913 to his Signal Inn. The inn (now Alexian Village), located half way between Chicago or New York and Florida, was the premier place for travelers to stay. Many notable people, including the Rockefellers, visited the inn during its 23 years of operation.

The inn partially burned, was rebuilt, but suffered during the Depression, and was finally closed. The town of Signal Mountain incorporated to keep valley residents' wandering cattle off James' golf course.

Charlie Adams was James "right-hand man" for many years. Later, he served as Signal Mountain's town superintendent for 30 years. Adams Square, at the town's only traffic light, commemorates his unparalleled service.

Buick's inventor and chief engineer, Walter L. Marr, originally from Michigan, became wealthy in the early days of the automobile. An insomniac because of his hectic business life, he said he got his first good night's sleep on a stopover at Signal Mountain Inn. Impressed with the town and its people, he moved his family to the mountain and became a leading citizen in the community. He continued as Buick's consulting and testing engineer. His home, Marrcrest, is on the National Register.

Col. Benjamin Patten Nicklin came from a family of career military men. His father, John Bailey Nicklin II, was president of the Southern Baseball Association and Mayor of Chattanooga from 1887-1889. His brother, Sammy Strang Nicklin, was the West Point baseball coach of Gen. Omar Bradley and Tennessee football coach, Bob Neyland, and was the owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts from 1919 through 1927.

Nicklin served in China during the Boxer Rebellion as well as in the Mexican Border War under Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing. After more than 30 years of military service, he retired to his Walden Ridge home, "At Ease," which was filled with his service memorabilia.

Joseph Wagner's family moved to Walden's Ridge in 1917 when he was 2. He served for 50 years as Signal Mountain's town attorney and is still active, at age ninety five, with the firm Wagner, Nelson and Weeks.

The early pioneer families, the "Carpetbagger" entrepreneurs and other civic-minded citizens all contributed to the development of Walden's Ridge and the town of Signal Mountain. Their interesting stories add much to the history of the Chattanooga and southeast Tennessee area.

Joseph Petree is a retired engineer originally from Newport, Tenn. He graduated from Tennessee Tech. He is an elder at Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church. He and his wife, Jean, live at Alexian Village. This article appeared in Volume 13, No. 2 of the Chattanooga Regional Historical Journal.

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