(Editor's note: Fourth in a series.)
In 1913, the family of the late T.G. Montague, a pillar of Chattanooga's business and civic community, donated more than 40 acres of land on the south side of the city for a public park to be named in his honor. Two world wars, an economic depression, political division among city commission members and a lack of funding for the improvements delayed the fulfillment of the agreement between the city and the Montague family. By the 1960s, debates about the future of the park continued.
The Chattanooga Daily Times reported that, on Aug. 4, 1963, while "one of the major assignments that a mayor sets for himself under the commission form of government is averting, if possible and feasible, the enervating effects of a divided City Commission," the commission was divided over the future of Montague Park. Mayor Ralph Kelly appeared to have the "perceptiveness ... and adroitness ... to see to it that all commissioners have their full voice and still keep things on an even keel." However, an outspoken exchange between Commissioners Bookie Turner and George McInturff the previous week had threatened the working effectiveness of the commission. At issue were three major proposals recommended by McInturff, all to be funded by a $792,000 bond issue: a new golf course on Moccasin Bend, a downtown marina on the river, and the city's share of the improvements for a museum and zoo at Montague Park.
McInturff had been criticized for not having "made a strong enough fight for recreation programs and facilities." While the city had baseball and softball diamonds, tennis courts and other similar facilities, there were few sites for family leisure in a less organized program. McInturff, feeling "a sting from repetition of these claims," announced that he was determined that during the current "term of office he would provide some of the facilities for which there has been a continuing request in recent years."
Two months later, a Chattanooga Times headline announced "City to Beautify Park Designated for Museum, Zoo" in a plan where the city and the Chattanooga Area Museum and Zoological Gardens Association would coordinate fundraising and reclamation efforts for Montague Park. McInturff "said the city desires to give the park an impressive landscaping treatment ... it has been used for a sanitary fill ... but public works will stop garbage operations there on March 1." Architect Harrison Gill shared a landscaping plan that would complement the site and provide sustainable beauty and diversity. "The city has agreed to spend $100,000 from a bond issue on the landscaping, fencing, grading and necessary utility installations," and work was to begin the following month.
Donald W. Hayden, president of the park association, shared with the commission that public fundraising would begin in January 1965 with a goal of "several hundred thousand dollars" to support the development of "buildings to house animals" and "a natural science center." He was joined in the presentation by board members Eric Lund and Rene Haldimann. The Scenic Cities Beautiful Commission also announced "a fall tree planting program" in addition to the state's plan "to landscape that freeway section from the Fourth Street interchange to the Ninth Street interchange as a sort of pilot project."
Springer Gibson, writing for the Times, reported that the "effectiveness of the landscaping and the care and maintenance of the plantings" at Montague Park and the surrounding areas "will do much to determine the future" of the park. Plans for the proposed zoo had to overcome the public memory of the "mangy, dirty lion in the miserable cage in the park a decade or so ago." The beautification would be enhanced by Commissioner Chunk Bender's announcement that the city would "crack down" on "persons dumping garbage and trash illegally."
The plans were finally in place to fulfill the agreement made by the city of Chattanooga and the Montague family more than 50 years earlier about Montague Park. So, what happened? Public fundraising faltered; city commission priorities shifted.
Decades later, the Chattanooga Zoo would be built at Warner Park and become a favorite destination for families. Montague Park would find new life as the acclaimed Sculpture Fields, a well-visited public site with a strong board committed to expanding public programming and growth. But, once again the future of the remaining acres of the 108-year-old gift to the city remains in question.
Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, is vice-chairwoman of the Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center and regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.