It's a safe bet that most of us know that Coolidge Park on the North Shore is named after World War II veteran and Medal of Honor winner Charles Coolidge.
Likewise, most of us probably know that Little Debbie snack cakes are named after the then-4-year-old granddaughter of McKee Food founders Ruth and O.D. McKee.
And we're all pretty familiar with the name Patten, which is scattered throughout Chattanooga like confetti — Patten & Patten investment advisers, Patten Towers, Patten Chapel Road, Patten Parkway, UTC's Patten Chapel — a tribute to the family that, among other achievements, founded what is now Chattem, owner of brands such as Allegra, Gold Bond, Pamprin, Aspercreme and Selsun Blue.
But did you know St. Elmo took its name from a book? That Warner Park honors a Southerner who spent most of the Civil War in a federal prison? That Mary Walker Towers was named after a 121-year-old former slave?
We pass these buildings or parks or neighborhoods every day; we drive down streets named after some prominent person in Chattanooga history. For a moment we think, "I wonder whose name that is?" Then, like a meteor streaking across the sky, the moment passes, life intrudes and the question is gone.
"I tell people all the time that we walk on the footprints of history in Chattanooga. For most people, we experience these historic places and names every day, but I guarantee that most people don't know who it's named after or who it is, or the history behind it," says Maury Nicely, a Chattanooga lawyer whose fascination with local history has led to two "Walking and Historic Guides" to Chattanooga and East Tennessee.
So let's do a little to alleviate the drought of historical tales and understanding. Don't think of this as a book-learnin' history lesson; think of it as a chance to answer those questions you keep forgetting you asked.
The name "St. Elmo" is actually the title of a Victorian-era novel written by Augusta J. Evans Wilson, who spent some summers on Lookout Mountain and found the view similar to St. Elmo Castle in Naples, Italy. The book is a florid melodrama of a Southern scoundrel and the woman who changes him into something better, and begins at the foot of Lookout Mountain where St. Elmo now sits.
Published in 1866 under Wilson's maiden name (Evans), it was one of the top three best-sellers of the 19th century. Only "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Ben Hur" sold more. "St. Elmo" sold more than 1 million copies in its first four months, making Wilson the first woman in the United States to earn $100,000 through her writing.
Mary Walker Towers
When she died at 121 years old, Mary Walker could lay claim to being the country's oldest living former slave, a title certified in 1966 when she was "only" 117. She died in 2012, having lived through 26 presidents.
Although records weren't kept when she was born, Walker was quoted in a newspaper article in 1966 as saying, "I was 20 on the 20th of August, a Sunday, in 1869. I remember that date because it was the day my first son was born."
Her son died in 1963, when he was 94. About a year later, when she was 115, Mary learned to read, write and do math. The U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare declared her the oldest student in the country.
"I decided I better do something," she told the newspaper. "I didn't know anything."
At the time of her death, she lived in the 10-story building that still sits on South Market Street at the base of Cameron Hill, a block or so away from the Tennessee River. Now managed by the Chattanooga Housing Authority, it was renamed in her honor after she passed away in 1969.
Joseph H. Warner was 19 years old when he joined the 19th Tennessee Regiment Confederate Infantry in 1862. During the Battle of Chattanooga, he was captured on Missionary Ridge. In a painfully ironic twist, he could see his home from the spot where he was captured. From then until the end of the war in 1865, he was a "guest" of the Union at a prison in Illinois.
After he was released, Warner returned to Chattanooga and started a hardware business that was so successful it eventually filled a five-story building at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Market Street. He expanded his interests into other industries such as coal and iron, even banking. Warner was one of the founders of the Third National Bank, which was taken over by the Chattanooga National Bank in 1902, then absorbed by the First National Bank three years later.
A member of the first Chattanooga City Commission in 1912, Warner was in charge of public parks and, after he died in 1923, the former Olympia Park was renamed in his honor. In his book, "Chattanooga Walking Tour and History Guide," Nicely says Warner "practically laid the first stone in the founding of a playground system in the city."
Warner's former home still stands on Vine Street at the intersection with Palmetto Street in the Fort Wood Historic District, though it now houses the Mayor's Mansion Inn. Fort Wood, by the way, was built in 1863 as a Union stronghold during the Civil War.
The James Building
Built in 1908 at the corner of Broad Street and West Eighth Avenue, the building is named after Charles James, a real estate developer and eventually one of the industry's millionaires. Although it's only 12 stories tall, the James Building is considered by some as the city's first skyscraper.
James didn't just develop downtown. He also was the original developer of Signal Mountain — the section now known as "Old Towne" around Signal Point. His home still sits across from the Alexian Village assisted living facility, another of James' first when he opened it in 1913 as the Signal Mountain Inn.
Perhaps his most important contribution to the city, though, was "the Belt Line," an early version of a public transit system. Built between 1883 and 1885, its 17 miles of railroad tracks encircled most of Chattanooga and, at first, were used mainly to haul freight. But James saw the potential for sending "spurs" off the Belt Line into newly created neighborhoods or soon-to-be-developed areas of town such as Highland Park, Eastside and Alton Park. By doing so, he made it possible for residents who lived in these "suburbs" to have jobs in the city. And the joy of the daily commute was born in Chattanooga.
After years in the banking business in Nova Scotia, Canada, and Topeka, Kansas, Thomas Maclellan moved to Chattanooga in 1892. Two years later, he and a partner bought Provident Life and Accident Insurance Co., now known as Unum. The company was the only one in Chattanooga that would insure the "uninsurables" — coal miners, sawmill workers and loggers, steelworkers — whose jobs were considered too dangerous for other companies to cover.
The island that now bears his surname sits in the Tennessee River below the Bluff View neighborhood and the Hunter Museum of American Art. Once the home of Native Americans as far back as 500 A.D., it has gone through several owners and several names.
In the early 1900s, the island became known as the place to go if you wanted to throw a loud, raucous party. So a group living in Bluff View — the "Cliff Dwellers" — bought the island to silence the parties. R.J. Maclellan, son of Thomas, then bought full ownership rights from the other Cliff Dwellers and, in 1954, he donated it to the Audubon Society to keep it from being developed (and to continue to keep away parties, one assumes).
His family also has footprints downtown with the Maclellan Building, built in 1924 as the home of Provident Life and Accident for the next 36 years. Located next to the Tivoli Theatre on Broad Street, the building has now been divided into 85 upscale apartments.
McCallie Avenue/McCallie School
The McCallie family came to Chattanooga in 1841 when Thomas McCallie, owner of a successful retail business in Rhea County, Tennessee, moved to Chattanooga. Opening a mercantile business on Market Street, he was one of the earliest businessmen in the city.
The family owned 25 acres where First Centenary Presbyterian Church and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga are now. They ran a farm that, among other things, raised orchards, horses and hogs. The family home was at the intersection of what is now McCallie Avenue and Lindsay Street.
In the late 1800s, what is now McCallie Avenue was simply the road that ran from Ross's Landing on the Tennessee River, past the McCallie farm and on to the Brainerd Mission a few miles north of the city. That road later was renamed in honor of the family.
The elder McCallie's son, Thomas H. McCallie, attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City and came back to Chattanooga after his father died in 1859. He eventually became minister at Chattanooga's First Presbyterian Church at McCallie Avenue and Douglas Street and remained at the church until he died in 1912.
Thomas' sons, Spencer and John "Park" McCallie, founded the McCallie School for boys, and his daughter, Grace, co-founded Girls Preparatory School. Both schools opened in 1906, and GPS was first housed in Grace's home on Oak Street.
In 1817, a Christian mission was built on land along South Chickamauga Creek just north of the city. The site had been owned by John McDonald, grandfather of John Ross, chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Originally called Chickamauga Mission, it was renamed a few months after opening to "Brainerd Mission" to honor David Brainerd, a missionary who worked with Native Americans in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Jersey in the 1740s. When he was 29 years old, he died in 1747 from tuberculosis.
For 21 years, the Brainerd Mission taught Cherokee children how to read and write as well as how to knit and sew, raise animals and to farm. It closed in 1838 when the Cherokee were moved from the Southeast to Oklahoma in what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
Many of the missionaries went to Oklahoma with their stewards, but some of them stayed and created First Presbyterian Church at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Seventh Street. (The church later moved to its current location at the corner of McCallie Avenue and Douglas Street.)
All that remains of the mission site is the Brainerd Mission Cemetery, which houses the remains of missionaries and Native Americans who lived there. In 1933, it was given to local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution, who maintain it to this day.
Chamberlain Avenue/Chamberlain Field
Born in Ohio, Hiram Sanborn Chamberlain was a captain and quartermaster in the Union army during the Civil War. When the war was over, he entered the iron business, first with Knoxville Iron Co., then moving to Chattanooga in 1871. He was president of Roane Iron Co. and Citico Furnace Co., an ironmaking operation he founded. In those roles, he is noted as one of the original creators of the South's iron industry.
He apparently liked the title "president" because he held that position on the Chattanooga school board and the board of trustees at the University of Chattanooga, now the University of Tennessee. He also was vice president of the First National Bank of Chattanooga.
Chamberlain Field football stadium, built on the UC campus in 1908, was named for him and his son, Morrow, who also served on the UC board of trustees. Until 1997, Chamberlain Stadium was the home of the college's Mocs football team.
Located next to U.S. 27 and across from Lookout Stadium, Cameron Hill is now home to BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
In the early 1850s, it was owned by local developer Col. James A. Whiteside, a Tennessee state senator. In 1853, he paid Nashville-based artist James Cameron to paint a portrait of the Whiteside family on the terrace of their Lookout Mountain home. The painting now hangs in the Hunter Museum of American Art.
To show his appreciation for the artistic effort, Whiteside gave Cameron land on the highest point of the hill to build a home and art studio, and Cameron's name was eventually attached to the property.
Right now, the lower part of the hill is being blasted away to make room for the straightening of U.S. 27.
Up in the Sale Creek/Soddy-Daisy area, you'll find the name Clift in several places — Clift Cave Road, Clift Eldridge Road, Clift Mill Road. They're named after William Clift, a land- and slaveholder in the area who was so adamantly against the South seceding from the Union that he refused to secede himself.
Outraged, he raised a group of about 500 men and called them the Seventh Federal Regiment. He and his "army" attacked — some say ridiculously — Confederate outposts in the area. While Clift signed peace treaties with local Confederate militias, he was such a nuisance to the Union that an infantry regiment from Alabama was sent to deal with him. With a bigger and better equipped batch of soldiers ready and willing to blow them to bits, Clift's Seventh Federal Regiment disbanded on their own without his approval.
Clift fled to Kentucky and joined the Union army but was so nasty and bullheaded, he was arrested for ignoring orders. Eventually, he was captured during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863. It says a lot about his charming personality that his own son, Moses Clift, brought him in.
It is said that William Clift's stubborn ghost still wanders around the cemetery at Mount Bethel Presbyterian Church in Soddy-Daisy, where he's buried. When you see him, you'll also hear "Taps" and drumming, according to reports.
We wouldn't want to make any claims against Clift, but Nicely says most folks don't know that many of the people who developed Chattanooga after the Civil War migrated from the North, seeing the chance to make money. When he talks to groups about Chattanooga history, he often tells them: "I can have y'all yell out prominent family names from Chattanooga, and I guarantee 80% of the ones we'd discuss would be Yankees who came here after the Civil War."