Local history: Completing the Missionary Ridge Tunnel

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Brainerd Road traffic courses through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel early in the morning of March 24, 2022, in this view of the eastern portals. The first tunnel, known as the McCallie Avenue Tunnel, opened in 1913. A second tube was added in the 1950s as part of Mayor P.R. Olgiati's drive to improve the infrastructure in Chattanooga. Those who drive through the Missionary Ridge tunnel today likely have no idea of the controversy surrounding its construction.
Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / Brainerd Road traffic courses through the Missionary Ridge Tunnel early in the morning of March 24, 2022, in this view of the eastern portals. The first tunnel, known as the McCallie Avenue Tunnel, opened in 1913. A second tube was added in the 1950s as part of Mayor P.R. Olgiati's drive to improve the infrastructure in Chattanooga. Those who drive through the Missionary Ridge tunnel today likely have no idea of the controversy surrounding its construction.

(Editor's note: Second of two parts)

What had begun as Judge Seth Walker's campaign promise to "unite the people of Hamilton County" by constructing tunnels through Stringer's Ridge and Missionary Ridge hit a snag. The Stringer's Ridge tunnel opened to great fanfare, as it significantly cut travel time between Chattanooga and the valley and mountains to the west. The Missionary Ridge tunnel construction, however, proved more challenging.

As work began, the engineers and laborers encountered increasingly unstable conditions. Continually shoring with timbers and machinery did little to lessen the landslides that threatened to halt the project. With the increased labor and material costs, the initial contractor demanded a "cost overrun" factor, noting that neither W.L. Dodds, the Hamilton County engineer, nor the company's team had predicted the instability of the ridge's core. A standoff over costs and performance halted the project. The original contract was terminated, and new bids to complete the project were requested.

On Oct. 14, 1911, the Chattanooga Daily News announced that bids were opened during a meeting of the Missionary Ridge Tunnel Commission, held in Dodds' office. After considering the problems encountered to that date, none of the three bids showed "a flat sum for the doing of the work." Instead, different bidders included a cost for labor coupled with a materials cost that included an "as required" clause. Concrete costs were specified as a "figure per yard with lumber supports by the thousand feet."

The Hamilton County Court instructed Dodds to carefully examine each bid, create a cost comparison for each line item, and then report to the tunnel commission and ultimately to the court members for bid approval. Dodds spent days assembling the comparisons. At the same time, one member of the commission met individually with the engineer to suggest that the county not "let a contract" but instead do the work itself. Commission members ordered the Chattanooga Railway and Light Company to clean out the "cave-in on the east end of the tunnel" so work could commence once a contract was signed. The pressure was on.

A new contract was issued, and one year later the members of the county court traveled by auto caravan to inspect the progress.

Upon arrival at the tunnel, the group walked from the west side through to the east side, with Dodds and Tunnel Commission Chairman A.J. Gahagan explaining construction features. Gahagan noted that the "tunnel to date had cost $189,450.38 and that an estimate Mr. Dodds submitted that week indicated that an additional $26,500 would be required to complete the project." Gahagan elaborated that the eastern end of the tunnel would be extended 100 feet further than originally intended due to the danger of "continued landslides" from the ridge above. The additional cost of about $8,000 was deemed appropriate as there was some concern about the slope of the ridge and some houses "perched precariously" above the tunnel.

Judge Will Cummings, ever mindful of local taxes and expenditures, told the group that Hamilton County would ask the Tennessee legislature to pass an omnibus bond bill to take care of the excess expenditures and retire debts hanging over the county court. The judge wanted the "present court to start off with a clean slate" and not be overwhelmed by "obligations" made by the previous court.

Within weeks, the Missionary Ridge tunnel's opening was celebrated, and residents in the Brainerd community found a visit to Chattanooga to be "more welcoming and easier to navigate."

During the winter of 1914, controversy arose over the "great icicle crisis." Some who traveled through the tunnel felt threatened by the icicles that formed overhead and feared "personal and property harm." The Chattanooga Daily News headline Feb. 16, 1914, during an abnormally cold period, declared: "Talk about Dangerous Icicles is all Nonsense," as neighbors decried all the "drama" over "ice formation no larger than lead pencils."

Spring brought an end to winter drama, and the tunnel became the favorite route for pedestrians and motorists.

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

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