Efforts to save Moccasin Bend have never moved in a straight line.
The first attempt came in 1920, when Adolph Ochs, publisher of The Chattanooga Times and The New York Times, offered to put up half the cost of making Moccasin Bend a park -- if local interests provided the other half. The matching money never came. Similar grassroots efforts at preservation were launched in 1926 and 1944, but crucial local or state dollars failed to materialize.
In the early 1950s, Congressman J.B. Frazier introduced federal legislation authorizing the addition of up to 1,400 acres at Moccasin Bend to Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Supported by Sens. Estes Kefauver and Kenneth McKellar, the bill passed and was signed into law by President Harry Truman. More than two years of miscommunication between Washington and Nashville ensued over the state's required $100,000 for land purchase. Gov. Gordon Browning requested the check Jan. 31, 1953, his final day of office. Gov. Frank Clement held up the payment on his first day in office, Feb. 2, 1953, because of budgetary concerns. The national park initiative stopped dead in its tracks.
Over 20 years of mostly public development followed: a state mental hospital, police firing range, wastewater treatment plant, model airplane field and golf course.
In 1982, Chattanooga and Hamilton County established the Moccasin Bend Task Force, composed of Sally Robinson, Jack McDonald, Rick Montague, George Mahoney and Bob Mayville. Their work led to the Bend's designation as a National Historic Landmark and a recommendation for national park status. The task force also orchestrated the Tennessee River Park Master Plan, a blueprint for a 20-year, $750 million riverfront development and downtown revitalization. That led to several major public/private successes, including the Tennessee Aquarium, Coolidge Park, Ross's Landing, Tennessee Riverwalk, The Passage and Renaissance Park.
A Friends group formed in 1995 to preserve the Bend's rich history and beauty. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp agreed to lead an initiative, working with the Friends, elected officials, Native American leaders and local citizens, to create the national park. Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed legislation for the park in February 2003. The city, county and state conveyed an initial 755 acres to what became the nation's first National Archeological District, to be managed by Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Included was the understanding that remaining "nonconforming" land parcels on the Bend would be deeded to the Park Service in the future through a phased plan.
The Trust for Public Land later brought the Rock Tenn and Pete Serodino tracts into the new park, both coming under generous terms by the sellers and with the support of local foundations.
Local entrepreneur Greg Vital made a major gift to the Friends to help raise awareness.
Working closely with the Friends, local mayors, other elected officials, Native American leaders and the public, the Park Service began gathering the best ideas for the new park. In 2013, the Friends helped the Park Service create a scenic and historic public trail along the old Federal Road, noted for its historical connection with the 1838 Trail of Tears and 1863 Cracker Line during the Civil War siege of Chattanooga. Work continues on the trail.
When fully developed, Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District is expected to attract as many as 250,000 annual visitors, which should boost the $55 million that the National Military Park's nearly 1 million annual visitors already inject into the local economy.
The most recent obstacle in the Bend's path toward "parkhood" has emerged with the police firing range. The vacated firing range land on the Bend -- a key segment for visitor services, recreation facilities and a riverside trail connecting to the Tennessee Riverwalk -- had been slated for transfer to the Park Service.
However, city and county officials recently said they want the firing range to stay on the Bend. Our community can only hope that popular support for and the economic promise of the national park will overcome this latest of the many challenges that have endangered Moccasin Bend over the last century.
Frank "Mickey" Robbins, an investment adviser with Patten and Patten, is the founding president of the Friends of Moccasin Bend National Park. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.