Gaston: Robert Cravens was ironmaster, Chattanooga area's first commuter

Robert Cravens

Cravens House on the side of Lookout Mountain is one of Chattanooga's most prominent landmarks. The famous "Battle Above the Clouds" that was part of the Battle of Lookout Mountain occurred there on Nov. 24, 1863. Robert Cravens was not home at the time, wisely having fled to North Georgia. The house was enveloped in heavy fog when Union troops routed the Confederates occupying it and gained control of Lookout Mountain.

Cravens is significant in Chattanooga history for both his house and his contribution to industrial development. Born on May 5, 1805 in Rockingham County, Virginia, Cravens was 16 when he learned the iron manufacturing business from his uncle-in-law, Gen. George Gordon, in Greene County. By 1842 Cravens had started the Eagle Furnace in Roane County, which produced pig iron and household iron wares.

The construction of the Western & Atlantic Railroad attracted Cravens to Chattanooga in 1851. He became manager of the East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Co. in partnership with Col. James A. Whiteside, president, James P. Boyce of South Carolina, and other out-of-town investors. The company consisted of a blast furnace near the bluff and a machine shop for manufacturing railroad engines and freight cars. In 1854 Cravens helped organize the Etna Mining & Manufacturing Co. to meet their increasing demand for coal. For Cravens to devote his full attention to the mines in Hamilton and Marion counties, the furnace property was leased to James Henderson of New Jersey.

In 1856 Cravens bought land on the side of Lookout Mountain where he built the house he called "Alta Vista," arguably becoming Chattanooga's first commuter.

In the summer of 1858, Dr. David Sullins, a Methodist minister, described his visit there: "My old friend Robert Cravens, who lived right under the bluff on the point of Lookout, came down and invited me up to spend the heated season with him. There was no other house on the mountain then We walked the near way, and passing the mouth of Chickamauga Creek which he owned and where he had a net set for fish, we stopped to get fish for supper." Sullins and Cravens enjoyed the magnificent view from the bluff until Mrs. Cravens hung a towel on the railing of the back porch signaling "dinner is ready."

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Cravens built a road straight up the mountain to his house. A more gradual approach was up the Whiteside Turnpike and across Shingle Road. Cravens also designed an ingenious water system. Water piped by gravity from a spring higher up on the mountain fed directly into a large stone basin in the kitchen, where it was dipped for cooking and drinking. Pipes from the kitchen carried the continuous flow of water to the cellar, called the "dairy," where it ran through a series of stone basins where dairy products, melons and cider were kept cool. From the last basin, the water was piped to the barn lot for the animals. The overflow from the barnyard ran down the mountainside to water a lush bed of mint.

Today both the house and the bluff furnace are Chattanooga landmarks. When James Henderson leased and converted the furnace from charcoal to coke, he tore down the limestone stack and replaced it with a new iron cupola stack, making it the first coke furnace in the South. This historic moment didn't last long. Owing to a short supply of coke, the initial blast only produced about 500 tons of pig iron. A second blast on election day, Nov. 6, 1860, failed because of "political complications and the demoralized state of the furnace workmen." Abraham Lincoln won the election and James Henderson returned to New Jersey.

Confederates evacuating the city removed the furnace's machinery, and Union troops used the site as a lime kiln. Cravens' house was looted and badly damaged, but after the war he rebuilt and added a third story to "Alta Vista." Cravens also organized and became president of the Chattanooga Southern Manufacturing Co. Cravens was still living in his house on the mountainside when he died on Dec. 3, 1886. In 1893 the family sold the home and 88 acres to Adolph Ochs, who donated it to the National Park Service. In the 1950s the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities, led by Elizabeth Bryan Patten, restored the house, which is open to visitors and maintained by the park service. The Bluff Furnace Historical Park can be viewed from the Riverwalk near the Walnut Street Bridge.

Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit