After serving as the lifeline of Union supplies to the besieged troops in Chattanooga in fall 1863, Walden’s Ridge saw its activity return to a calmer pace.
That calm was interrupted in the 1870s with the outbreak of two epidemics, cholera and yellow fever, that fell on Chattanooga.
Many came to believe that fevers in the lowland were spread by the humid summer heat, and that was close to the truth.
In her “History of Summertown-Walden’s Ridge,” Elizabeth Patten relates on one morning in the summer of 1872, “Judge David McKendree Key rushed to his wife at home in Chattanooga. ‘Lizzie,’ he asked, ‘can you and the children be ready to go to the Ridge this afternoon?’ … ‘Two people died of cholera this morning,’ he added. ‘Have the hack here by 2,’ was her reply. They moved that afternoon.”
Other families traveled on horses and in buggies up Rogers Gap Road, today’s “W,” in hopes the high ground and cool air of Walden’s Ridge complemented by the chalybeate waters of Mabbitt Springs would protect their families from cholera.
In 1878, the yellow fever epidemic started a second exodus from Chattanooga. The first families escaping the epidemics stayed in hotels that sprang up on the ridge and later established summer homes, especially in the area near and north of the top of Rogers Gap Road. The area became known as Summertown.
The number of Summertown residents grew. Working men rode down early in the week, stayed in boarding houses or permanent homes and returned to join their families for the weekend. One of the few daily commuters was Col. Milton Ochs, managing editor of The Chattanooga Times, who rode back and forth on a thin gray saddle horse named Shafter. “It took John Hartman half a day to drive his ‘bus’ to the ridge. Shafter always made it in two hours,” George Gardenhire told historian Kay Baker Gaston.
A post office was established in 1893 at the top of the “W” and grew to include a store and dance pavilion. Dances attracted mountain people who walked to the venue from miles around. Summertowners also joined in. Writer and artist Emma Bell Miles commented it was one of the best country dances she had ever attended. She described a rough lumber pavilion lighted with four oil torches and a floor crowded with dancers.
In 1908, residents of Summertown established the Union Chapel, or Little Brown Church, for their families to hear God’s word, just a walk or a buggy ride from their summer homes.
Early organizers and leaders include members of the Fritts, Sharp, Brown, Bates, Williams, Kropp, Brown, Patten, Davidson, Hunt, Wells, Steffner, Schlesinger, Henson, Thompson, and Kruesi families.
For many years after World War II, “Miss Ellen” Poindexter and John Strang gave uplifting lessons, and Col. Creed Bates, closing prayers.
Services continue to this day as descendants of the original families and new residents join in singing Beulah Land, In the Garden, Love Lifted Me, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Church in the Wildwood (accompanied by children ringing the bell) and, on the last Sunday of the summer, God Be With You Till We Meet Again.
Chattanooga attorney Jac Chambliss in 1988 told historian Karen Stone for her book on the church: “In a world that is caught up in a sticky tangle of sweeping changes, social, technical, and economic, with all the accompanying stress and bewilderment, this tiny chapel, hidden in the green woodland of one of the oldest settlements on Walden’s Ridge, is a quiet oasis of traditional and unchanging values.”
Frank “Mickey” Robbins, a Patten and Patten investment adviser, is a CAHA board member. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call Lavonne Jolley 423-886-2090.