Local history: Recognize that name? Chattanooga mayors often served beyond the city

Contributed photo / H. Clay Evans, an early education advocate, served as Chattanooga alderman and mayor.

(Editor's note: First in a series)

Whether one is scanning a document about Hamilton County history or a dedication plaque on a local architectural treasure, a name may appear that sounds familiar but be just outside immediate recall. That may be true for a series of Chattanooga mayors. Beyond that quick moment of recognition, why might each one be remembered?

The name of one of Chattanooga's early mayors is quickly recognized from his military service with the Union Army. Gen. John T. Wilder returned to Chattanooga shortly after the war's conclusion. While local citizens remembered him shelling the city from a prominent position on Stringers Ridge, they welcomed his investment in revitalizing East Tennessee industry. Wilder founded the Roan Iron Works, which became the largest employer in the region and an owner of vast tracts of land across the eastern part of the state. Elected mayor of Chattanooga in 1871, Wilder resigned just seven months later when he realized that his business holdings and travels limited his ability to actively engage in governance.

Tomlinson Fort, born in Milledgeville, Georgia, was educated at Oglethorpe University and practiced law in Savannah before returning home to manage his late father's estate. When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Fort joined the Georgia militia and served for the duration of the conflict.

In 1865, Fort moved to Chattanooga. With little money but strong business acumen, he found work and within a few years, became one of Chattanooga's business and civic leaders. He served as city attorney, city recorder and a member of the Public Works Board before being elected mayor in 1876, the first former Confederate to hold that office.

Fort's major goal as mayor was to stabilize the city's treasury and eliminate its debt. To accomplish those objectives, Fort pushed the Board of Aldermen to "abolish all city-produced script," and urged citizens to pay their taxes early so that the city could retire its debt. He then encouraged all major employers to hold public meetings, identifying their operational plans and commitment to the local economy — an attempt to boost public confidence. A corresponding goal was the creation of a comprehensive free public education system for all children. When aldermen failed to appropriate the necessary funding, Fort used his own personal line of credit to start a limited system of schooling.

Henry Clay Evans, originally from Pennsylvania, discovered the beauty of the Chattanooga landscape and sensed its potential as an economic center while stationed here during the Civil War as a sergeant with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. After Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender and time spent in Texas, Evans too returned to Chattanooga to work alongside the former chief of the local Quartermaster Corps, Maj. Thomas J. Carlile, Chattanooga's mayor in the late 1870s.

Evans quickly become involved in business and civic affairs and helped establish Chattanooga as an industrial center on the national scene through his endeavors with the Chattanooga Car Company, the Roan Iron Works and the Wasson Car Works. His leadership in Chattanooga's recovery propelled him into politics. In 1881, Evans was elected alderman, followed by election the next year as mayor and then re-election the following year for the same office. Evans, aware of the need for skilled employees, was an early advocate for literacy programs and prompted the Iron, Coal and Manufacturing Association to fund a public library.

After serving as mayor for two years, Evans served three additional terms as city alderman. He ultimately became a U.S. House member from Tennessee's Third District. Having gained the attention and respect of three presidents, he was appointed U.S. commissioner of pensions, the first assistant postmaster general and consul general in England.

When he returned to Chattanooga after his national service, Evans once again stepped forward and served. When the city's governmental form changed from Board of Aldermen to City Commission, Evans was elected as the commissioner of education, re-instituting his goal of improving public education. Many citizens may remember attending what became in 1928 the H. Clay Evans Grammar School serving Cameron Hill.

William Little Frierson moved to Chattanooga in 1890 after spending his first 22 years in Shelbyville in Bedford County. Frierson practiced law with Judge Lewis Shepherd and shortly afterward became involved in civic affairs under Shepherd's mentorship. Only 15 years later, Frierson was elected mayor during one of Chattanooga's most turbulent times. His leadership propelled him to later prominence as U.S. assistant attorney general and U.S. solicitor general.

Linda Moss Mines is Chattanooga and Hamilton County's official historian. For more Local History, visit Chattahistorical.org.