Opinion: Embracing a golden opportunity on Moccasin Bend

Staff file photo by Ben Benton / Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Superintendent Brad Bennett talks on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, about the site plan that will create a distinctive entrance to Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, a site that encompasses thousands of years of cultural history of human habitation. A fully realized national park within Chattanooga's city limits will be a boon to tourism because of its historical, cultural and recreational offerings.

(Editor's note: Second in a series)

The state of Tennessee's proposal to build the new mental hospital on the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District has sparked quite a debate. Business and civic leaders are seeing the need to move the hospital off Moccasin Bend to a more connected setting and allow our community to reap the benefits of a first-class national park. With Moccasin Bend's rich diversity of history, culture, scenery, flora and fauna, many believe a full national park at our doorstep will bring new travelers to area hotels, restaurants and shops. This windfall to our local economy must not be allowed to slip away.

Civil War tourism is well-established on the local scene, but it's not well known that Moccasin Bend played a brief but important role in the 1863 Battles for Chattanooga. U.S. Army artillery on Stringer's Ridge fired across the Tennessee River on Confederate batteries on Lookout Mountain, thus holding the South at bay. When the well-preserved Union artillery placements and solider encampments are made accessible, these features are certain to attract a flow of Civil War buffs. Visitors also will come to walk a section of the Old Federal Road that crosses the Tennessee River at Brown's Ferry. Union supply wagons came across the Bend on this "Cracker Line" and brought rations to starving soldiers in town.

Cultural and heritage tourism has grown in recent years, and public interest in learning indigenous traditions, art and history is high. The 12,000 years of continuous habitation on Moccasin Bend offer glimpses into Paleolithic, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian, Spanish Contact, Creek, and Cherokee life. Visitors will learn about early farming, cooking and hunting; be escorted by park rangers through Hampton Place village sites; and walk an original route of the Trail of Tears. Festivals and outdoor dramas will add to the traveler's experience. A future museum can hold art, artifacts and multimedia displays.

Also appealing to heritage tourists will be exploring Moccasin Bend's role in the Underground Railroad National Network of Freedom. Visitors of all ages will be intrigued by the incredible story of Jacob Cummings, an African American man enslaved on a plantation on Moccasin Bend. In July 1839, Cummings took an old Indian canoe, pushed off the banks of the Tennessee River, crossed to Williams Island, and made his way north. Once gaining freedom, he became a conductor of the Underground Railroad, actively working to free others.

The Bend's rich flora and fauna offer opportunities to experience the natural world just minutes from downtown. Bird watchers will want to capture images of yellow-throated and prairie warblers, indigo buntings, American woodcock, fox sparrows and turkey as well as those of migrating raptors including bald eagles, hawks, and osprey. Students will walk along an ancient levee and learn from interpretive signage about early civilizations.

Environmentalists can be reminded how ancient peoples conserved natural resources and improved well-being. Many urban visitors will bring their children to experience Mother Nature at the Bend's hills, forests, fields and riverbank, where deer and other wildlife roam.

With a park unhindered by the mental hospital and the firing range, the National Park Service will be free to open wagon trails, side roads and main road to hikers, joggers and bicyclists. An Ironman Chattanooga event can include a Bend run and a river swim. A riverfront trail will introduce pedestrians, cyclists and photographers to unparalleled views of downtown, the river, Lookout Mountain and Tennessee River Gorge.

The rollout of the full national park will take time, but the rewards should be substantial. In 2022 alone, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park brought 964,000 visitors to the area, directly supporting 905 private sector jobs and the local economy by $81.3 million. A 2014 study predicted a 25% increase in area tourism once the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District, our "Central Park," is fully developed. This equates to a $20 million boost to Chattanooga's economy every year.

These numbers make it essential to include costs and benefits in the decision on the mental hospital. Any short-term "savings" gained by keeping the hospital on the Bend become meaningless if Chattanooga misses the many long-term benefits, economic and otherwise, of a fully developed national archeological district. Our community faces a monumental, generational decision. The path forward must be forged carefully and transparently to achieve the optimum consensus. That's the Chattanooga Way.

Before it's too late, contact members of our legislative delegation, who have agreed to go along with Mental Health Commissioner Marie Williams and Gov. Bill Lee in leaving the hospital on the Bend. Tell them we have a golden opportunity to do the right thing.

Frank "Mickey" Robbins, a retired investment adviser, is a board member of National Park Partners and recently completed a term as chair of Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute.