Several months ago, fellow amateur historian Nancy Diwan and I were guests on Jed Mescon's WGOW Friday evening talk show, "Chewing the Chatt." We were discussing Chattanooga history when a caller asked if we had ever heard of an accident involving the Incline. The caller had heard an Incline car had some time ago broken loose and crashed into a building at the bottom of the tracks. Nancy agreed, saying her late father talked about an accident, and a friend claimed to have a picture of an accident.
Billed as the "World's Safest Mile," the Incline was built in only 90 days in 1895. Considered an engineering marvel, it was once a major source of transportation on Lookout Mountain. The cars carried mail, workers, students, groceries, blocks of ice and items from the drug stores in St. Elmo to residents on the mountain. Today it carries thousands of tourists yearly, affording them a magnificent view of the valley. But has it ever had an accident?
Curious, I consulted Mary Helms, head of the Local History and Genealogy Department at the Chattanooga Library. Looking through the library files, we found the answer.
On July 22, 1886, John Jones, age 21, was killed while working on an earlier Incline. On the job only a few days, Jones was in a car secured by a rope. It broke loose sending the car with three men aboard plummeting down the tracks. The other men jumped to safety, but Jones tumbled down the tracks with the car and died instantly. He was the only person, employee or passenger, to die on the Incline.
Early in the morning of March 23, 1919, a fire destroyed the hoisting house, machinery and Ingle's souvenir stand at the top of Lookout Mountain. According to The Chattanooga Times, a blazing car tore loose from its moorings. Shooting down the track, it caught the cross ties on fire, eventually leaving the tracks and crashing into the woods. The loss was estimated at $50,000, but no one was injured.
On Oct. 8, 1971, the News-Free Press reported a power failure at the Incline. The ascending car was derailed and 13 passengers were stranded in the descending car. The cars were one-third along the trip. The passengers in the descending car walked to Scenic Highway where a bus awaited them. The 25 passengers in the derailed ascending car were assisted from the car to a road and were picked up by waiting cars. The cause of the power outage was hotly debated. Incline Superintendent L.E. Walls blamed rotten power poles, while EPB officials blamed improperly tightened cables following recent maintenance. No one was injured. However, the passengers, who received refunds, had quite a story to share.
Superintendent Walls was called upon again in November 1980 to comment on a story in the Nashville Tennessean claiming 13 passengers had a harrowing experience on the Incline. Quoting a passenger, the story contended due to a partial power failure, passengers were forced to evacuate the car, climb down the tracks, "grabbing the cross ties like a giant ladder," and "cross a steep trestle where there was nothing" "but a pretty good drop, some rocks and brush."
While there was a partial power outage, Walls maintained the passengers were not in danger. Both cars were about 100 feet from the terminals when the outage occurred. The passengers in the ascending car walked back to the terminal. Those in the descending car, on the steepest part of the descent, could not unload and were gradually lowered manually by the operator. Although Walls admitted the car was subject to abrupt stops during the process and the loosened cables crashed noisily into the cars, there was no danger. About half-way down the mountain, the passengers got out of the car and walked 200 feet down a slight grade to waiting buses. Walls stated no one seemed afraid. They were indeed laughing. He believed, "Somebody's trying to build them up a big story."
So the answer to the question is "yes' and "no." Nevertheless, the Incline Railway was and remains the "World's Safest Mile."
Gay Morgan Moore is a retired Chattanooga State Community College faculty member and the author of a number of books, including "Chattanooga's Forest Hills Cemetery" and "Chattanooga's St. Elmo," as well as a new children's book, "Alissa and the Magnificent, Magical Hair Bow." For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.