Barr: Chattanooga's first railroad: The Underground Railroad

Barr: Chattanooga's first railroad: The Underground Railroad

February 4th, 2018 by Chris Barr in Opinion Columns

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Perhaps nothing is as iconic in Chattanooga as the railroad. Since 1850, when the Western & Atlantic tracks were laid, trains have defined this city. It was the railroad that made Chattanooga the "Gateway to the Confederacy" and the target of Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. In the years following Reconstruction, the railroad was responsible for the city's rebirth. Countless train tracks still crisscross streets throughout the city, and visitors pose for photos in front of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo while humming the famous Glenn Miller song. Trains chug today through the Western & Atlantic Railroad tunnel at Missionary Ridge.

However, the first "railroad" in Chattanooga was the Underground Railroad.

Jacob Cummings was an enslaved 3-year-old in 1819, the year the United States entered into a treaty with the Cherokee Nation setting the Tennessee River as the boundary with the United States. Hamilton County was established on the northern banks of the river across from Ross's Landing, and it included the peninsula known as Moccasin Bend. Throughout the 1820s, land speculators bought large tracts of land throughout the county. Riverfront property was especially popular. James Smith was one of those men buying in the area of Moccasin Bend. By the time he arrived in the newly created Hamilton County, Smith owned more than a dozen enslaved people, including young Jacob Cummings.

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Cummings grew up laboring on Smith's "lower farm," which stretched from near today's locations at Baylor School along the western bank of Moccasin Bend south to the National Park at the Brown's Ferry Federal Road Trace. Each year, Smith would travel to Alabama to buy and sell horses, and young Cummings went with him, likely crossing at Brown's Ferry.

As Smith's wealth increased, he became increasingly an absentee owner at the Bend and spent much time at his properties near Hixson and Dallas, an earlier county seat. He became well connected to families in the area. One daughter married William H. Stringer, namesake of Stringer's Ridge, and another married Henry Simmerman, who died on Moccasin Bend in 1838 at the time of the Cherokee Removal. One of Smith's son-in-law's sisters was the wife of a Mr. Leonard, who ran a grocery in the newly named town of Chattanooga.

Smith gave Cummings additional responsibilities at the lower farm around Moccasin Bend, but the enslaved man often received severe beatings for any of his mistakes or those of other farm hands. At times, Smith sent Cummings on errands into the city, where he met Mr. Leonard, the grocer. Cummings described Leonard, who was from Albany, N.Y., as "a fine man." He "was an abolitionist, but didn't dare say anything." Leonard showed Cummings how to find north using the stars on clear nights and moss on the trees on cloudy nights and quietly encouraged him to leave his harsh life behind.

One day in 1839, Smith lashed Cummings' mother when cats stole his fish, and the 23 year-old decided to act. "Well I was down at the lower farm and I made up my mind to take Leonard's advice and about eleven o'clock in the morning in the latter part of July I started. I went across to the island in an injun canoe and stayed about two days, when the woman who lived on the island — they were poor folks — told me that she thought they were coming to search the island, and so I walked to the lower end and we had high water then I never swam more easily than that half mile and tuk right up Walden's Ridge I paid a man to write me a free paper and concealed myself in the Sequatcha Valley from pursuers I travelled on into the northern part of Tennessee and across Kentucky to the Ohio River With a rail I broke a lock that fastened a skiff and reached the Ohio shore just before daylight."

After more than a year on the run, Jacob Cummings was a free man. In 1894, historian Wilbur Siebert interviewed Cummings for his book, "The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom." (Read the transcript online at Thanks to the work of Siebert, digital preservation and importantly the tenacity of Jacob Cummings, we can hear firsthand from the man who was likely the first railroad passenger in Chattanooga. That train may not have been on our city's famous tracks or immortalized in song, but for at least one day in 1839, the Underground Railroad stopped at Moccasin Bend.

Chris Barr is a ranger with the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. For more, visit

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