Frierson: How early engineers shaped Chattanooga

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As the oldest local society in America for general engineering, the Chattanooga Engineers Club boasts a legacy of 90 continuous years of service to the profession and community. The founding members of 1924, however, were the successor generation to a remarkable band of builders, problem-solvers and risk-takers.

The engineers who developed Chattanooga's industry and infrastructure can trace their lineage to the City's occupation by Union forces in 1863 and the rapid buildup of manufacturing and material to support the remainder of the Civil War.

Chattanooga's singular advantages of strategic location, proximity to resources, and water and rail arteries were well recognized by outsiders. After the War and through the 1870s, these inherited traits drew returning officers and talented immigrants alike. Their arrival injected capital and ideas into a city that, unlike most in the defeated South, had paused only briefly to recover its momentum. "Reconstruction" meant something positive here.

Some returning veterans were West Point graduates, recipients of America's first true engineering degrees. Others acquired their training through real-world experience. Whether viewed locally as carpetbaggers or investors, these newcomers quickened the pace of development and reshaped the surrounding landscape.

In those early years of practice, engineering was not uniformly defined (or protected) by licensing and certification standards; instead, the emerging discipline was a toolkit of practical skills, a self-declared occupational calling. George Washington, a land surveyor, battlefield commander and canal advocate, was our young nation's de facto engineer-in-chief. Appropriately, National Engineers Week is celebrated in February, the month of his birthday.

By the 1880s Chattanooga was a bustling boomtown, attracting talented opportunity-seekers such as Cincinnati native Edward E. Betts. Although still in his 20s, he had acquired a working knowledge of civil engineering from constructing new railroad lines. His initial assignment here was to survey and build a broad-gauge rail line up and around Lookout Mountain.

In the next two decades of a prolific career, Betts provided engineering design and construction oversight for the Walnut Street Bridge, roadways and monuments at the new Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park and a trolley linking the battlefield to downtown Chattanooga.

Jo Conn Guild, Sr. was another early "doer " who migrated to Chattanooga in the 1880s. But no Yankee scion was he; Guild was the Vanderbilt-educated grandson of a prominent Gallatin, Tenn., judge and landowner who had been deported and imprisoned during the Civil War for his Confederate sympathies.

In 1895, Guild built the Incline Railway from its base in St. Elmo to the precipitous brow of Lookout Mountain. Determined to improve navigation on the Upper Tennessee and transport electricity over 17 miles to Chattanooga's power-hungry factories, he raised Wall Street financing for the downstream Hales Bar project.

His was the world's first multipurpose hydroelectric lock and dam, a geotechnical challenge so vast it employed 5,000 laborers at the peak of construction. Remarkably, Guild's audacious plan preceded the New Deal creation of TVA by a quarter century. Many such "public works" in that era were conceived, funded and completed by private enterprise. Similarly, ownership and management of Chattanooga's water works has been in private hands but for five years of Union Army control.

These civic-minded project engineers helped advance the standing of their emerging field. Betts founded the local chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the first national society in the profession. He brought ASCE national conventions to Lookout Mountain in 1891 and Chattanooga 20 years later, when local hotel rooms and meeting facilities were limited.

Betts co-hosted the 1908 annual meeting of the Engineering Association of the South. His impressionable peers departed by a special train from the Southern Railway's unfinished Terminal Station on a regional inspection tour, returning for "an elaborate banquet served in the artistic grill room of the Patten Hotel."

Only impending darkness could pull them away from the teeming Hales Bar worksite. The group's official proceedings described the massive hydropower project on the Tennessee River as "one of the largest engineering feats yet undertaken in the South."

Tangible legacies of these two 19th-century titans remain in regular use. Betts' turreted castle design of the Point Park entrance pays visual homage to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers insignia. His long-abandoned 1886 railbed ascending Lookout Mountain is today the picturesque and protected Guild/Hardy Trail, serving outdoor enthusiasts.

This pioneering generation of Chattanooga's engineers made indelible marks upon the land that, decades later, we rightly treasure.

Author, historian and journalist Jim Frierson is a native son.

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