Staying on track for a half century, Chattanooga Choo Choo complex evolves under different owners

Choo Choo hits 50 as $10 million hotel, rail car, gardens revamp to finish in summer

Staff photo by Robin Rudd/ The historic Choo-Choo is seen wrapped in fall color on Nov. 5, 2019.
Staff photo by Robin Rudd/ The historic Choo-Choo is seen wrapped in fall color on Nov. 5, 2019.

As the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex chugs through one of the biggest-ever makeovers to its hotel, gardens and iconic rail cars, the site for which the city is widely known turned 50 last week.

"This was one of the first examples of a large city train station, which was no longer served by the railroad, to be saved for public use by private investment," said Justin Strickland, a Chattanooga historian who wrote a book about the popular landmark.

Strickland said the grand opening of what was then known as the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hilton and Entertainment Complex in April 1973 almost didn't happen.

"It came so close to becoming a parking lot," he said in a telephone interview about the Market Street location of the former railroad depot. "They were taking it apart when the decision came down to save it."

The first train arrived at Chattanooga's Terminal Station, popularized in the 1941 hit song by Glenn Miller, in 1909. But train travel declined sharply after World War II, and by 1970, Southern Railway had vacated the facility, according to news archives.

"The patient was in a lot of trouble," Strickland said, adding that railroads weren't known for keeping around train terminals for nostalgia.


Casey years

A group led by Chattanooga businessman B. Allen Casey took the neglected terminal that was slated for demolition and transformed it into one of Tennessee's best-known tourist destinations.

Casey later recalled in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that he had spotted a tiny article in a Chattanooga newspaper in 1971 about the planned destruction of the old terminal. Already toying with the idea of a new downtown hotel, Casey sized up the old depot, saying, "Gee, this would make a fantastic entertainment complex," according to the article.

"Immediately I thought of the song 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' and I wanted to save the building right then and there," the businessman said.

Casey, who died in 2020, put more than $4 million into turning the site into a hotel, restaurant, and convention and tourist complex.

But after experiencing initial success, the Choo Choo ran into financial problems related to increased lodging industry competition and soaring interest rates, according to news archives. In 1987, the Choo Choo filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan and Casey lost control of the facility.


Kinsey Group

A group that included Chattanooga businessmen Jon Kinsey, Frank Fowler and Jeff Leonard closed on the acquisition of the property Jan. 13, 1989, Kinsey said by phone.

"The judge awarded us the bid," the former Chattanooga mayor said. "We had all our money lined up. We wanted to make it a Holiday Inn."

Which they did.

Kinsey said it was the opportunity to have 25 acres downtown that attracted the group's interest. But at the time, the property held some 360 hotel rooms, he said.

"It really didn't make any sense," he said, noting he had been involved in what's now the Chattanooga Marriott next to the Convention Center, which has 350 rooms on a quarter acre.

Over the years, parts of the Choo Choo site have been sold and repurposed to hold apartments, restaurants and other venues. Later this month, The Signal will reopen in the former Choo Choo Convention Center as a venue for concerts, weddings and other meetings.

"It's so much better now than what it was when it was just a hotel," Kinsey said.

Adam Kinsey, who is Jon Kinsey's son and president of Choo Choo Partners, said it took a while for the rest of downtown's Southside to redevelop around the site. He recalled the Track 29 concert venue that opened on the Choo Choo property in 2011 brought 100,000 people annually to the Southside.

"It started to see a lot more development happen," he said about the Southside that's now the hottest part of the central city.

Adam Kinsey said the Choo Choo has served as an anchor. He said the current hotel renovation and related work overseen by Chicago-based Trestle Studio will "elevate that property."

"It's their baby," Adam Kinsey said. "They've got a ton of experience across the country."


Hotel revamp

Jessica LaRosa, the Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel's managing director, said the work on the lodging is timely given the 50th anniversary.

"While we're not quite ready to celebrate today, we're looking forward to acknowledging the milestone when we unveil the fully restored property later this year," she said in an email.

The more than $10 million restoration effort will hold 102 rooms in the original building along with 25 Pullman train car rooms, according to Trestle. Previously, the building was operating 75 rooms, and no train car rooms were being utilized last year when Trestle announced the revamp, the hotel group said.

"There aren't many hotels that have stood the test of time to the extent the Choo Choo has over the last 50 years," LaRosa said. "Restoration of the train cars are well underway, and we're uncovering some beautiful original details and features that we're working into the design of the interiors."

Completion for the renovations is set for late summer, she said.

Strickland said the Choo Choo has had to transition itself to meet the demands of more specific types of tourists. He said the development of the complex was "a game-changer" for the preservation of such properties nationally and downtown Chattanooga tourism.

"I'd say the Choo Choo, while it may not have started the tourism industry ... it was a catalyst for downtown," Strickland said. "It's a survivor."

Strickland called the existing Choo Choo property a mixed bag.

"The focus on history has kind of been left behind," he said. "There's less cohesiveness."

In March, Chattanooga in partnership with Atlanta, Nashville and Memphis applied through a federal program for funding to study potential train routes between the cities to bring back regular passenger rail service to the Scenic City.

The infrastructure law Congress passed in 2021 made billions of dollars available for the development of passenger rail, and Amtrak is pushing for a massive expansion nationwide.

"I think it's a fantastic idea," Strickland said. "People are looking for reasons to abandon their cars."

But, he added, renewed train travel "could be a slow thing to come to fruition."


Choo Choo Timeline

1909: Chattanoogas Terminal Station opens

1941: Glenn Miller Orchestra has hit song "Chattanooga Choo Choo"

1973: Group led by B. Allen Casey saves site from demolition

1974: Choo Choo listed on National Register of Historic Places

1989: Jon Kinsey group acquires Choo Choo

2011: Track 29 music venue opens

2018: Historic dome donated to preservation group Cornerstones Inc.

2022: Trestle Studio starts renovation of hotel, gardens, rail cars

2023: 50th anniversary of Choo Choo complex

Source: Chattanooga Choo Choo, Chattanooga Tourism Co., newspaper archives

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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