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Staff photo by Ben Benton / Former Congressman Zach Wamp speaks about the importance of the work to preserve the site now protected as the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, as he and others visited the site property off of Hamm Road in Chattanooga.

Note: This story was updated on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, at 5 p.m. to correct the spelling of former congressman Zach Wamp's last name.

A national archaeological district at Moccasin Bend took a significant step forward Thursday with the announcement of a gateway project at the entrance to the site off Hamm Road in Chattanooga.

Three years ago, the National Park Service presented the General Management Plan Amendment for Moccasin Bend, casting the long-term vision for the nation's only site designated as an archaeological district.

The announcement launched the next phase, and it's about telling Moccasin Bend's stories.

"The stories of Moccasin Bend are truly timeless," Tricia Mims, executive director of the National Park Partners, told a group of more than a dozen people on hand Thursday at the site on the eastern edge of the bend's peninsula. "They go back millennia to a time when the first peoples inhabited Chattanooga's ridges and valleys up through contact with the Spanish and eventually making this land their home."

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Moccasin Bend archaeological district

Mims said Moccasin Bend's stories include pivotal events of the Civil War and the history of native peoples going back 12,000 years.

"The stories are complex and layered like the sandstone cliffs of the Cumberland Plateau that surround us," Mims said. "The story continues to be written, and we are making history here today with the launch of our Forever Moccasin Bend campaign."

Thursday marks the introduction of the public phase of the "Open the Gateway" campaign "with 90% of the $1.1 million project costs identified," Mims said.

The park partners group established a goal of raising $250,000 through the campaign, and Mims said the group has secured $125,000 in gifts and pledges to notch half the goal along with a challenge from leading donors.

Each dollar donated to the next phase will be matched until the $250,000 goal is met to fulfill "our promise to the National Park Service to meet them halfway towards opening the gateway," Mims said of the $1.1 million project.

Mims said it is "a pivotal moment."

"[A] a moment for Chattanooga to reflect on the past, invest in the present and take pride in the future of making a difference that will last forever, Forever Moccasin Bend," Mims said, giving a nod to the funding campaign's moniker.

(READ MORE: U.S. House set to vote on historic Great American Outdoors Act)

Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park Superintendent Brad Bennett said the public planning process started five years ago with Congressman Chuck Fleischmann and Moccasin Bend supporters in the field where the gateway is to be constructed and Thursday's announcement was made.

At the beginning of the process, "we reached out to the 23 federally recognized American Indian tribes who hold deep ancestral ties to this landscape," Bennett said.

Over the next two years, meetings and public input produced ideas on the future for Moccasin Bend and "resulted in a collective vision for the development of future facilities and trails to help visitors to explore the landscape and to learn more about its stories," he said.

Bennett said a federal Centennial Challenge Grant in 2017 and help from the Friends of Moccasin Bend led to the completion of design work for the first construction.

"Restrooms, a parking lot, a wheelchair-accessible pathway and, right here," Bennett of the spot where he was standing, "a pavilion where National Park Service interpretive rangers, tribal partners and others can continue to share the legacy and heritage of this place with local residents and visitors alike."

Bennett said the park was "on the verge" of a second Centennial Grant to help with construction of the gateway, which he called the "front porch of Moccasin Bend for the community."

The first completed feature of the project was an interpretive display, or marker, installed at the entrance to the property. It was unveiled Thursday by Fleischmann and Chickamauga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution members Barbie Standefer and Susan Harris.

(READ MORE: National Park year in review: The good, the bad and the beautiful)

Former Congressman Zach Wamp said the launch of a gateway campaign comes at a time when Americans are becoming more reflective and more concerned about their neighbors.

Wamp said in his community of Lookout Valley the coronavirus has people focused on outdoor activities, the importance of slowing down to learn about their neighbors and setting new priorities.

"Before COVID there might have been 10 or 12 people out walking every morning and now there's 50," he said. "And before COVID people would walk right past each other and now they stop and talk, and they actually ask each other about their families and learn each other's names."

Wamp noted other outdoor activities pretty much unheard of a few years ago, like pickle ball, are becoming popular because of the impact of the coronavirus.

"It's actually us slowing down to figure out who we are," he said.

"So in a way, I think God's getting our attention here and that brings me to Moccasin Bend, because this is an important moment for us to take another big step," Wamp said.

He applauded development nearby and along the river because "progress is great," but said Moccasin Bend was too important to lose to development.

"This actually transcends each of our lives. It is a legacy like no other," Wamp said.

"It keeps Chattanooga Chattanooga," he said. "This is who we are. Moccasin Bend is our history, it's our heritage, it is our DNA, and it's buried about 20 feet deep right out here in Hampton village."

The plan for the Moccasin Bend Archeological District was finalized in 2017 to bring a national park visitor center to the new gateway site on Hamm Road, add signs along trails to showcase the area's history, provide recreational opportunities and improve access to the hundreds of acres that played a key role in the histories of the Trail of Tears and the Civil War.

Chattanooga residents declared their wish that the land to be protected in the 1980s and 1990s during Chattanooga Venture, Mims said in 2017 when she was Friends of Moccasin Bend executive director. Those residents got their wish in 2003 when the land became the first designated U.S. archaeological district.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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