From cattle land to community
The story is well-known to most residents of Signal Mountain: Businessman and property owner C. E. James, tired of animals grazing on his newly finished golf course, caused the town to be incorporated and receive its charter on April 4, 1919. Walden's Ridge had long been a place where citizens from Red Bank and other areas in the valley brought their cattle to graze during the summer. But one year after opening the golf course, the town was chartered and the days of unchecked grazing ended.
The first ordinance from the town's first mayor — James — prohibited running livestock within the town limits, and the first employee was to "hire a man with a horse to corral the animals and enforce the law," according to the town's website.
Said to be the South's first millionaire, James had purchased more than 4,000 acres of land near Signal Point in the 1870s with plans for a residential community. With the outbreak of yellow fever and cholera in Tennessee during the last part of the 19th century, he and other affluent residents traveled up the mountain to utilize the mineral waters of Burnt Springs near Rainbow Lake and Mabbitt Springs in what is now Walden.
Nearly four decades after purchasing a chunk of the mountain, James began developing the Signal Point area. In 1913, he completed the Signal Mountain Inn, which included 12 miles of trolley track down to Chattanooga and numerous hiking trails crisscrossing the property. In 1918, he completed what is now Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club.
Signal Mountain had 250 homes when James died in 1925. His property is now developed and is part of the Signal Mountain historic district, "Old Town," which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.
Today, the town has just over 3,000 households and a population of 8,567, according to World Population Review. Signal Mountain grew at its fastest pace between 1960 and 1970 when the population jumped by 1,426 people. Another 1,216 residents moved to Signal Mountain between 1980 and '90.
Those two decades account for more than 50% of the growth over the last 59 years.
"Education is an important part of the town's history and an important reason why people move here," said Mayor Dan Landrum. "I think the thing that has changed the community the most in this century is the building of the new school, and the thing that changed the community the most in the last century was the opening of Signal Mountain Elementary School."
The original elementary school is now controlled by the town and serves as the Mountain Arts Community Center.
Signal Mountain at a Glance
* Date chartered: April 4, 1919
* Current population: 8,567
* Median age: 44.1
* Education: 69.4% with associate, bachelor or graduate degree
* Median household income: $103,139
* Median property value: $337,800
* Race: 98% white
* Average commute: 21.8 minutes
* Elevation: 1,790 feet
Sources: World Population Review, U.S. Census and Data USA
A local's perspective
Eric Brown is exactly the kind of person Signal Mountain founder C. E. James had in mind 100 years ago when he led the effort to successfully charter the town on Walden's Ridge in April 1919.
James was an entrepreneur who, in the 1870s, bought more than 4,000 acres near the southern edge of the mountain that overlooks the Tennessee River and surrounding valley. His vision was a small, residential community built on the acreage where Ascension Alexian Brothers rests today.
In 2015, Brown and his wife, Katie, decided to move their family of four from the valley to Signal Mountain. Brown is a 37-year-old millennial entrepreneur who co-founded Whiteboard in 2010. His Chattanooga-based firm specializes in digital problem solving with digital solutions.
"Most people go where they go because of their job, when you should pick where you want to live first and then get the job," said Brown. "We picked to live up here."
Brown was raised in a small Georgia town, went to college at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, and spent enough time in Atlanta to know it was not where he wanted to live. He found what he wanted on Signal Mountain.
"The pace is why we're here," Brown said. "There's one light and one grocery store. It's the perfect place to go from fast-paced entrepreneur to a husband and dad."
Through its 100 years of growth, Signal Mountain has developed as an affluent and highly educated community. The median household income is $103,139 and the median property value is $337,800, according to U.S. Census data. Nearly 70% of Signal Mountain residents have an associate, bachelor or graduate college degree, and the heritage of education is reflected in the town's high-performing public schools. Nolan Elementary, Thrasher Elementary and Signal Mountain Middle/High School are among the highest-achieving schools in Hamilton County.
"It was always James' vision that Signal Mountain would be a wealthy community," local publisher and historian Jim Douthat said in an interview this spring.
The town of Signal Mountain's 8,567 residents live within 7.66 square miles of history that dates back to the Cherokee Indians. The southern end of Walden's Ridge played a significant role in the Civil War battles around Chattanooga in November 1863. Both the Native Americans and the Union Army used Signal Point as a place from which to send messages and observe movements in the valley. Point Park in the historical district of Signal Mountain is part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
It was also James' vision for the community to take advantage of the geography that makes it unique. When he built the Signal Mountain Inn, designed to be an upscale resort for Northerners traveling south on vacation, James added the community's first hiking trails.
Hikers today frequent the 18 miles of trails inside town limits, looping through Signal Mountain and connecting to parks throughout the town. Rainbow Lake, once part of the Signal Mountain Inn, is a popular hiking trail, and the southernmost trailhead of the 200-plus-mile Cumberland Trail is located at Point Park.
Boyd Veal, 59, grew up on the mountain, as did his mother's family. Now the town's manager, he has worked for the town for all but five years since 1983. A clear focus of the town as a "bedroom, primarily residential community" developed over the decades helps him in managing issues with the five-member town council, he said.
"We are the type of community we are and are probably going to stay that way," said Veal. "I think the nature of the community provides the opportunity to focus on the things that are going to have positive, long-term impact."
Brown said adjusting to a commute on and off a mountain was easy once he realized the daily drive reinforced why he moved to Signal.
"The views coming off the mountain are tremendous," he said, "and it is the breath I need before I hit the [company] door and the pace gets going again."
Sense of community
Francis Zwenig stood at the point of Point Park on a cool September morning as the sun came up over what she calls the "Tennessee Grand Canyon." It had been more than five decades since she stood in this place. Zwenig went to Signal Mountain Elementary School and then Girls Preparatory School in the valley below before leaving Chattanooga.
"I spent part of 2017 and 2018 on a world tour with National Geographic," the 74-year-old said. "We saw the best of the best around the world, but this view is as good as anything I saw."
Zwenig returned to Signal Mountain when Hurricane Dorian forced a mandatory evacuation from her home in St. Simons Island, Georgia. She came north and stayed with Karin Glendenning, her friend from third grade who has headed the Signal Mountain Library since 2006.
"As I think back, the best thing about living up here is just being part of nature, because it is all around you," said Zwenig. "There was a city park out my backdoor and my parents would just let us out for the day and say they would see us at dinner."
Signal Mountain, like Lookout Mountain, is a city defined by geography, sitting on the south end of Walden's Ridge. Its population of 8,567 is 40% more than Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and Lookout Mountain, Georgia, combined. Still, the geographic limitations on population growth over Signal Mountain's 100 years created the "sense of community" that tops the list of best attributes citizens speak of when talking about their hometown.
"We are very blessed to live on the mountain because we don't have to deal with a lot of things that people do down in the valley," Zwenig said. "We're close-knit, and I think that comes from the number of strong churches we have. People are always looking to help someone else."
Nancy Tryon, longtime resident and president of the Signal Mountain Lions Club (renowned for its Fourth of July and Labor Day barbecues), listed other main attributes: "It's the people, the schools and the weather."
"The weather, it's just cooler and sometimes it snows in the winter," said Glendenning, the lifetime resident who heads the Signal Mountain Library, adding, "I love the huge rocks around the [hiking] trails."
Fellow librarian Mack Cauthen has been a town resident for 32 years and knows the names of most people who live on Signal Mountain.
"The people make Signal Mountain what it is," he said. "There are people who have lived here all their lives, but still new people moving here. We have a community that has a lot to offer."
As Beth Newbold, husband Carter and son Nathan left the used-book sale at the Signal Mountain Library, she said: "This is a place where people are dug in, you know? The sense of community comes from being here long enough where you coach your friend's kids, and then they coach the grandkids. Dug in, that's what makes it special."
Email Davis Lundy at firstname.lastname@example.org