Recreational and heritage tourism in Northwest Georgia and the Tennessee River Valley last week gained a new jewel in a crown that includes hiking and biking trails, climbing walls and caves, Native American and Civil War sites and a network of lakes and waterways.
Outdoor enthusiasts, community leaders and members of the National Park Service gathered Friday morning to officially open the West Chickamauga Creek Canoe Launch at the historic Lee and Gordon Mill in Chickamauga.
"This gives paddlers a safe, secure place to leave their vehicles and launch," said Jim Ledbetter of the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club. "This is a win-win for everyone. It brings tourist dollars to local communities and gains national recognition for the area. And it is just a great stretch of creek to paddle."
Chickamauga Creek, with its various branches, was a major thoroughfare before Europeans arrived in America and crossed the Appalachians. During pioneer times the creek provided power for industry, as witnessed by the number of roads that include "mill" in their name, and transport before the arrival of railroads.
The creek is now being rediscovered as a source for recreation, a blueway that stretches from McClemore Cove at the foot of Lookout Mountain to the Tennessee River just below Chickamauga Dam.
Lee and Gordon Mill's is the third such launch site - the first in Georgia - along the waterway that flows through the cities of Chattanooga, East Ridge, Fort Oglethorpe and Chickamauga.
"The establishment of the blueway connecting our communities is a very exciting development for Northwest Georgia and Waker County," Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said in a prepared statement. "We expect to see a huge economic impact through this new partnership. The popularity of blueways in other cities has contributed millions of dollars to local economies through the additon of new businesses and increased tourism."
Chickamauga's, a natural launch point into shallow waters from a sandy creek bank, is not the only such site along West Chickamauga Creek.
Launch points are already in place at the Tennessee Riverpark, near Amnicola Highway, and Sterchi Farm, on the greenway near state highways 58 and 153, in Chattanooga. And floating docks are being installed in Fort Oglethorpe, near Holcomb Garden Center at Battlefield Parkway and at Camp Jordan in East Ridge.
From Lee and Gordon Mill downstream to Camp Jordan is about 20 miles by water and takes about 10 hours of paddling.
Along its course, the creek borders the Chickamauga Battlefield National Military Park, runs alongside Battlefield Golf Course and parallels Dietz Road and flows beneath Cloud Springs Road on its way to Camp Jordan.
Cathy Cook, superintendent of the nation's oldest and largest military park, said she has supported the project since Chickamauga City Manager John Culpepper and (Walker) County Attorney Don Oliver presented their vision of such a blueway about 1 1/2 years ago.
Noting that the battle took its name from the creek, and was fought at such sites as Reed's Bridge, Alexander's Bridge and Jay's Mill along its banks, Cook said paddling provides a way to experience the battle.
"This offers a different view of the battlefield while having minimal impact on park resources," she said.
Facilities that make the blueway possible are being funded by local governments and the Chattooga-based Lyndhurst Foundation.
Foundation president and treasurer Bruz Clark recognizes the role West Chickamauga Creek played in the fighting that took place during the fall and winter of 1863.
"We are thrilled to be opening the head of the blueway in time for the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga and hope everyone takes advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty and history that is here."
In addition to its historic and pastoral setting, Walker County's launch point will offer features seldom found at other creekside sites.
Culpepper said the city has built handicap accessible restroom and changing facilities that will be open to the public each day from 8:30 a.m. until dark. The site, which also houses the mill and the Veterans of All Wars Museum, is itself a tourist destination, one with ample parking and that is regularly patrolled by city police and sheriff's deputies.
"Public access and safety is critical," Ledbetter said. "This is a job well done."