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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / This section of Montague Park along East 23rd Street is seen on Thursday, May 6, 2021.

The Montague land bequest for a park in South Chattanooga hung in limbo for decades, partially realized but not developed. Little record exists of the park in newspaper archives from 1917 to 1949, perhaps overshadowed by the Great War, the economic boom of the 1920s, the crash of the 1930s and the nation's total commitment to World War II.

In July 1949, the Chattanooga Daily Times' Springer Gibson described the park as "most of which is now useless and even detrimental from a health standpoint," reporting that Commissioner P.R. Olgiati had plans to reclaim the land through scientific "sanitary fill garbage disposal" whenever the city could secure the $25,000 needed for equipment. Olgiati urged his fellow commissioners to support the project as a compromise on the original plan. Ten to 15 acres would remain a "useful park," while the "landfill site" would "enable the city to abandon its open and unsanitary garbage dump located near the intersection of Central Avenue and Rossville Boulevard" and "eliminate the stagnant water on the 23rd Street side of the park."

In the newspaper interview, Olgiati quipped that the foul-smelling water bred "mosquitoes big enough to drain the pond if you furnished them dippers." He explained that the pilot project might inspire "owners of low, valueless property the advantage of offering the property for sanitary fill purposes."

By late 1949, Montague Park appears to have been serving a dual purpose: providing fields for amateur baseball and a "landfill site" for the city. A contemporary newspaper article described the landfill process as having none of the "unhealthful, odorous and unsightly features of the open dump disposal," noting that the long-range benefit to the city would be a "level playing field" that could later be incorporated into the recreational goals of the park. An average of 40 loads of garbage were being delivered each day to the site from "the downtown area, the West Side, Highland Park, South Chattanooga, Missionary Ridge, Brainerd and half of East Lake."

But problems near the site continued. In July 1953, the city, spurred by complaints from merchants and residents, announced it would begin a major public works project to eliminate a "stench pool" just west of Montague Park. Officials had initially responded with a ditching and draining operation, but that approach had proved ineffective, and Commissioner Pat Wilcox pushed for stronger action. The new piping solution "would require 1,000 feet of 54-inch pipe and another 650 feet of 36-inch pipe" that would connect with a pipe line coming from Montague Park. Wilcox was "confident this will relieve the situation" and citizens would return to the area for shopping and recreation.

Within a decade, a newly created Chattanooga Area Museum and Zoological Gardens Association entered the discussion about fulfilling the original purpose of Montague Park. The idea focused on the development of a natural history museum, a small zoo and botanical gardens, arguing that now the surface of the park had been raised above flood level and was ready for "redevelopment." Trustees for the association, including Mrs. Ray Solomon, Eleanor McGilliard, Mrs. Leon F. Cross, Rene Haldimann, Harrison Gill, Dr. Lionel Prescott and Dr. Wilbur K. Butts, worked closely with Commissioner George McInturff.

McInturff reported that the city was prepared to start the grading of one part of the reclaimed park and to do screen planting in the fall, with the association consulting on the type of planting to be done. Cartter Patten, finance chairman, assembled Lou Williams, Eric Lund, Summerfield K. Johnston, Charles K. Peacock and Dr. M.S. McCay to work with him to raise "the money for the high architectural and landscaping tastes" of the proposed programs, each of which had been approved by the city commission at McInturff's request. The new coordinated park and zoo with museum idea was renamed the MUZOO by the association.

The Chattanooga Times reported on Aug. 2, 1963, that Commissioner McInturff, Don Hayden, president of the MUZOO Association, and architect Harrison Gill had met with Ellis Spencer, city engineer, and Robert Shepard, planning commission director, to determine the infrastructure needs for the planned multi-use design. Within days, the city commission had adopted a resolution authorizing the issuance of $100,000 in bonds for "recreational purposes" to be designated for Montague Park development.

But the next headline, just days later, read: "Mayor Tries to Head Off City Commission Factions." Once again, Montague Park's future was hanging in the balance ...

Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, is regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR, and the vice chairman of the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center. She can be reached at localhistorycounts@gmail.com.

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