Moments in Memory: The birth of Signal Mountain

Moments in Memory: The birth of Signal Mountain

March 31st, 2019 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News

The W Road up Walden's Ridge in 1907.

Photo by Library of Congress photo

Jim Douthat has lived on Signal Mountain for more than half of the town's life. His wife's family built the first cabin on the mountain in the 1830s. The Kell family house off Anderson Pike where Douthat lives was built in 1869 and is the oldest single-family dwelling on the mountain.

The small office of Mountain Press sits to the side of the house and is full of more paper than most people under the age of 30 have seen in their lifetime. Douthat, a retired pastor, is a historian and genealogist and the business he has operated since 1983 owns more than 2,500 titles.

If you want to scrutinize North Carolina birth records between 1690-1790, Jim's your guy. Lots of paper, everywhere.

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Douthat understands how people in the valley have historically viewed the communities that reside on Lookout and Signal mountains – wealthy, mostly white and segregated by natural geography. Douthat chuckles as he says that is exactly what C.E. James intended when he caused the creation of the Town of Signal Mountain on April 4, 1919.

James, who died six years later in 1925, was the town's first mayor and reported to be the South's first millionaire. He had an office on Wall Street and a home on Signal. The James Building in downtown Chattanooga bears his name.

"C.E. developed both mountains for exclusivity. Both were designed for the elitists, so you end up with an elitist attitude. That was C.E.'s intent to begin with," says Douthat. "He lived in an elitist world and rubbed elbows with billionaires. He borrowed all his money from New York banks. Once, a Chattanooga banker ask him why he didn't use their money. He said, 'I could spend all of your money before lunch.'"

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The Town of Signal Mountain was born on April 4, 1919, by an act of the state legislature. The announcement wasn't reported in the Chattanooga Daily Times on that day, the next day or a week later, on April 11, 1919, when Tennessee Gov. Albert H. Roberts signed Signal Mountain's birth certificate.

The 12-page morning paper (2 cents) on the day Signal Mountain was born streamed a two-line headline reporting on the welcome home celebration of soldiers returning home from World War I. A three-column picture of the crowd gathered at the corner of Broad and Market Street filled the center of the front page containing 21 different stories, and the lead paragraph summed up the mood of the day.

"Cheered by the most stupendous crowd that ever thronged the streets of Chattanooga," it began, "1700 of the best and bravest soldiers 'that e'er the sun shone on' were welcomed back to God's country and to the good old Volunteer State yesterday in a magnificent ovation that was in some measure at least worth of the proud and glorious record they make in the battle for the peace and happiness of the world."

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Douthat says the earliest settlements on Signal Mountain were Native Americans from Mississippi who came to hunt on the mountain before returning to camps along the Tennessee River. He says whites like his in-laws arrived in the early 1800s from the Sequatchie Valley. They, too, hunted the mountain while using it to pasture their cattle and hogs during the summer.

The development of Signal Mountain began in earnest in 1895, Douthat says, when Daily Times publisher Adolph Ochs purchased several thousand acres on the land where Signal Mountain Middle/High School sits today one year before he bought the New York Times in 1896. The flamboyant Ochs laid out on paper a community he called Timesville, named after the morning newspaper.

Ochs put his vision to paper. Timesville would include more than 1,000 homes, hotels, drug stores and "the whole bit," said Douthat. Ochs the entrepreneur created a contest in which any person who purchased a subscription to either the Daily Times or the New York Times ($1.50 for a year) would have their name entered in a drawing, and the winners each received a free lot of land in Timesville. A lucky winner could buy a second lot for $25.

"It was a magnificent vision," says Douthat, "but nothing was ever built. But, it was the kind of vision that C.E. James could embrace."

Douthat says that in the early 1900s, an unnamed international consortium that included three U.S. presidents purchased around 8,000 acres on Signal Mountain for the purpose of building a resort and other developments. When little progress was made, the group decided to sell the property and hired James to do it.

"People said C.E. could stick his right hand in your left pocket, his left hand in your right pocket, and you'd beg him to let you write a check for more," says Douthat. "He could raise money on a rock."

That process led to James plotting out the roads and the 1 square mile that would become Signal Mountain in 1919. James spent several years building a resort community, a golf course and a trolley to run from the valley up the mountain. When the new town was created in 1919, its first order of business was to hire its first law enforcement officer with a horse to keep animals off the golf course.

"The Signal Mountain Inn, which is now Alexian Brothers, was the nucleus around which everything developed," says Douthat. "The tax rolls indicated that 2,000 people owned property, but a lot of that was people buying investment property."

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Douthat says that the work done by James and the use of the mountain by the Union army during the Civil War are two of the most important things that have occurred in Signal Mountain history. He then jumps to the 2000s and the push by residents on Signal Mountain to build a new high school, which was dedicated on July 31, 2008.

"The high school is a current historical marker," said Douthat. "It's hard to think about something else that big happening any time soon."

The Aug. 13, 2008, Chattanooga Times Free Press (50 cents) reported the opening of the new Signal Mountain Middle-High School on its Metro front with a first-day-of-school account and two photographs. Was it a big deal?

The report said, "Even though he woke up at 5 a.m., principal Eddie Gravitte wasn't the first person at the new Signal Mountain Middle-High School on Tuesday morning. 'I turned on the TV, and the first thing I see is a reporter standing outside the building. They camped out at 4:45.' And so began the first day of classes at the new mountain school, which opened Tuesday along with 77 other Hamilton County public schools."

The 1 square mile that was Signal Mountain in 1919 is now about 8 square miles. The 1919 population of 2,000 has boomed to 8,560 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, showing growth of about 65 people per year over the last century.

"We are mountain-locked, not land-locked," said Douthat. "It's not like we are going to be adding more space."