"The establishment of a system of parks and pleasure grounds for a rapidly growing city is one of the most difficult and responsible duties that ever falls to a city government," landscape architect John Nolen wrote in a report to the Chattanooga Board of Parks Commissioners in 1911.
In his "Report and General Plan for a Park System for Chattanooga," the Cambridge, Mass., professional warned commissioners that "failure to select sites discriminantly, to design them for specific purposes, and to confine their use to those purposes is to lose to a considerable degree the benefits that might otherwise accrue to the people.
"[T]he city," he wrote in the commissioned report, "is at present backward in the matter of parks."
At the time, Nolen said, Chattanooga had less than 100 acres in parks, no playgrounds, and no parkways or pleasure drives connecting the city with federal parks on Missionary Ridge or in the Chickamauga Battlefield area.
At the time, the city limits the landscape architect was considering ran from Missionary Ridge west to Stringers Ridge and what was then called Hill City (now North Chattanooga or North Shore), south to the Georgia line in Rossville and east to the Chickamauga Creek entrance to the Tennessee River.
Today, with a much larger footprint, the city has 4,835 acres of parks, playgrounds, greenways and trails. Thankfully, city planners keep a much closer eye on the continued need for such parcels.
It is difficult to discern what all was directly done or not done from Nolen's report, but looking back from a 106-year vantage point it is clear planners through the years at least kept some of his recommendations in the back of their minds.
The map included with his report shows, for instance, park pathways on either side of the river running from what was listed as the Tennessee River Park (about where the Tennessee Riverpark is today) to Moccasin Bend on the north side of the river and a corresponding area on the south side, ending about where Chattanooga Creek empties into the river.
"It is too late to make a satisfactory parkway along the Tennessee River in front of the built-up section of the city," Nolen wrote, "but it ought to be possible to secure a narrow drive directly on the river, beginning at Chattanooga Creek and terminating in the proposed Tennessee River Park at the mouth of South Chicka-
mauga Creek. I consider this one of the most practical, important, and urgent of my recommendations."
The tract that could become the Tennessee River Park, he said, "is an almost ready-made park. It possesses every requirement of an ideal park ."
Today, the city of Chattanooga website calls the Tennessee Riverpark, which opened in 1989, "the crown jewel of Hamilton County's park system." The Riverwalk, to the extent envisioned in 1911, extends roughly beside the river from Chickamauga Dam to the foot of Broad Street in St. Elmo and is still being developed. A branch also crosses the river and is envisioned one day to skirt the river around Moccasin Bend.
Nolen also suggested the city acquire Moccasin Bend, "one of Chattanooga's world-famous points, which should not remain in private hands." The land, at the time agricultural, was "quite unspoiled and inexpensive. It would pay the city to acquire now several hundred acres or more and set the tract aside for future development." Sadly, more than a century later, the National Park Service is still attempting to corral privately held pieces of Moccasin Bend for a national archeological area.
The landscape architect also foresaw parkways along the sides of the Chattanooga and South Chickamauga creeks, which "would be available for different neighborhoods throughout the city." A century later, the Riverwalk extends some of the way along South Chickamauga Creek, and more is planned.
East Lake Park, in the news last week with a finalized park renovation design projected by mid-October, was seen in the plan as "the best illustration in Chattanooga of what a neighborhood park may be." Nolen suggested the park be extended up to Crest Road on one side and to Missionary Ridge Circuit Drive (presumably Central Avenue) on the other. That would grow the park from about 15 acres to 40 acres; today, it is about 18.5 acres.
A 70-acre tract then called Olympia Playfield was said to be "ideal in location and well adapted topographically for a central playfield, the culminating feature in the grounds devoted to physical education and recreation." Today, Olympia Playfield is Warner Park, which contains several softball fields, tennis courts and the Chattanooga Zoo.
Nolen also suggested securing "land necessary for a wild mountain park on Stringer's Ridge" (Stringer's Ridge Park opened in 2013); the "relatively easy" acquisition of Chattanooga Island (now Maclellan Island, a wildlife sanctuary), Tow Head Island (part of the ground now supporting Interstate 24) and Williams Island (now managed by the Tennessee River Gorge Trust); and land for Woodland Park, part of which became Montague Park) and Locust Street Park (parts of which became Carver Recreation Complex).
While all of the 1911 plans weren't undertaken, Chattanooga nevertheless put an initial emphasis on parks and then revisited it over the last 50 years. We're grateful planners are still looking at the possibilities because, as Nolen in his report quoted Frederick Law Olmstead, considered to be the father of American landscape architecture, "no city possessed of a rural park regrets its purchase."