Local history: Nathan Bachman a devoted public servant

Contributed photo Nathan Bachman


Raise your hand if you occasionally drive through the Bachman Tubes, the tunnels on U.S. Highway 41 through Missionary Ridge, or are aware of the former Bachman School on Signal Mountain. The prominent Bachman family included the Rev. Jonathan Bachman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga from 1873 to 1923 and his youngest son, Nathan Lynn Bachman, the focus of today's historical reminiscence.

Nathan Bachman, born in 1878 after his parents' arrival in Chattanooga, shared a love of learning with his family. He graduated from Washington and Lee University and then studied law at the University of Virginia. He was graduated in 1903, earning Phi Beta Kappa honors. By 1906, Bachman was employed as the Chattanooga city attorney and, in 1912, was elected as a Hamilton County Circuit Court judge. Having gained a reputation as possessing a "deep knowledge of the law" and "a gift for its application," Bachman was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1918. His story could have ended with that elevated position, but it did not.

In February 1933, Associate Justice Nathan Bachman resigned from the Tennessee Supreme Court to accept an appointment from Gov. Bill McAlister to the United States Senate. Sen. Cordell Hull from Fentress County had been named by newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt as secretary of state and would eventually serve for 11 years in that position, making him the longest-serving secretary of state in U.S. history. With Hull's appointment, McAlister chose Bachman to fill the remainder of Hull's Senate term from a short list of seven candidates.

In making the appointment, McAlister observed, "I have every confidence that his [Bachman] views on state and national political issues will cause him to promptly ally himself with President Roosevelt on all matters that will arise in the next Congress and upon which the President-elect has spoken in such unmistakable terms both during the elections of last Fall and since that time. ... Tennessee has been honored by the elevation of one of her distinguished sons to the chief place in the cabinet of the next President and I have endeavored to name as his successor, a Democrat upon whom in the United States Senate the administration could have the same sure reliance as it has exposed in Senator Hull."

Bachman would complete Hull's term and then be elected to a full term of his own in 1936. Returning to Washington, D.C., in January, 1937, the senator continued to serve on the Senate Military Affairs, Foreign Relations, and Privileges and Elections committees. He announced his strong support for the president's plan for development of the Tennessee basin, adding that he believed "great advantages affecting a large area of the south would result from it." In a news conference covered by the Chattanooga Daily Times, he commented that "the potential unused power of this vast amount of water could be harnessed to provide light for thousands of homes as well as employment for thousands of men."

Three months later, the citizens of Tennessee were stunned to learn that Bachman had died suddenly. Chattanooga Mayor E.D. Bass responded immediately by proclaiming "an official period of mourning for the hour of the funeral of United States Senator Nathan L. Bachman, Chattanooga's distinguished son." Signal Mountain Mayor Burton Franklin, where the senator made his home, asked that "a thirty-day mourning period be observed at the mountain town hall." (The Senator's former home is now known as the McCoy Farm and Gardens, named after his daughter, Martha Bachman McCoy.)

An outpouring of respect and affection grabbed the front pages of the Chattanooga newspapers. The president sent a floral tribute to the funeral and a telegram to Mrs. Bachman reading, "I offer you and Mrs. McCoy [Bachman's only child] my heartfelt sympathy." Hull telegraphed: "Senator Bachman has always stood for high ideals and supported ... the general welfare of all people. His circle of admiring friends comprised every person with whom he came in contact ... ."

The tributes continued. Julius Ochs Adler, general manager of The New York Times and publisher of the Chattanooga Times, released a statement: "The nation, the state of Tennessee and his native city of Chattanooga have lost a distinguished public servant in his passing ... . [H]e will be sorely missed by the people he served so ably, and particularly by those many personal friends to whom his high character, his courage and his personal charm endeared him ... . [H]e was so deservedly respected and loved."

The senator was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery.

Linda Moss Mines is the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.