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Staff Photo By Olivia Ross / The newest portion of the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway helps the linear park run from the Tennessee Riverpark to Camp Jordan.

The words in Friday's newspaper were astonishing, even if not everyone realized it.

"After 25 years of work," the report said, "the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway is complete, stretching 12 miles from Camp Jordan to the Tennessee Riverwalk."

Truth be told, the beginnings of the $16 million greenway go back at least 20 years earlier to the Brainerd Levee, which was finished in 1980 — after many delays — following the devastating 1973 St. Patrick's Day weekend flood. The walking path created across the top of the levee from Shallowford Road to Brainerd Road gave what become the greenway a healthy head start.

A 1993 Chattanooga Times article likened what was beginning to happen with trails across the area to a spider weaving a web of connected linear parks.

The same article noted that supporters already believe "a series of linear parks along stream corridors would preserve the environment, give wildlife a refuge in urban areas and provide some people with a good source of outdoor recreation."

Two years earlier, in 1991, the National Park Service (NPS) saw such potential for linear parks in the area that it made the eight-county, two-state Chattanooga region its second model city for a metropolitan greenways program. The park service's assistance helped local groups — some of which had had a vision of such a connected network since the mid-1970s — design what became a blueprint for local greenways.

"If Chattanooga's going to be the environmental city," Chris Abbett, an NPS outdoor recreation planner said at the time, "they've got to work on preserving streams and corridors. Greenways are all related to things like bringing in industry. It's a very important part of what Chattanooga needs to really be recognized as an environmental city. I think they realize it's part of a larger picture."

The first South Chickamauga Creek Greenway master plan workshop took place in 1995, but by that time the trail across the Brainerd Levee was well on its way to its extension to Camp Jordan. A conservation easement of 11 acres given by Osborne Enterprises to the city of Chattanooga in 1994 had provided the impetus.

"Chattanooga has a wonderful opportunity in South Chickamauga Creek to create a greenway as good as any in the nation," Charles Flink, president of Cary, N.C-based Greenways Inc., which had been retained to help prepare the master plan, said at the time. "This fits with your 'environmental city' efforts to attract new, sustainable development."

By that point, the greenway had been foreseen as extending 22 miles from the Tennessee Riverpark to the Chickamauga Battlefield. (At Camp Jordan, West Chickamauga Creek splits off and runs to the battlefield.) It was thought the entirety of the project could be completed within 10 years.

The progress proved to be much slower than expected. The leg from the Brainerd Levee to Camp Jordan that was forecast to be finished as soon as the summer of 1995 was not completed until May of 2001. The final piece of the $459,000 leg came with the placement of a 1920s-era steel truss bridge — for which the city had traded Walker County in 1988 — to span the creek at Camp Jordan.

As with all legs of the project, money came from more than one source. With this leg, it was from federal highway funds, the cities of Chattanooga and East Ridge, and private donations.

Those were just the beginnings. Individual parcels have opened since then, and the final piece — called the Cromwell Hills Connector — may have been the most complicated. It was certainly the most expensive, with a nearly mile long, stilted boardwalk 40 feet over the creek costing $4 million. It also had to navigate railroad trestles and bridge pilings, some of which predate the Civil War.

A 1994 Chattanooga Free Press article presaged the lengthy process it would take to completion when it noted that the South Chickamauga Creek's drainage corridor contained a wide variety of public lands, including a national forest, a national military park, a private wildlife sanctuary and cultural site on the National Register, an urban flood protection levee, an airport, a recreation area and other historic spots.

But now it's done, and for those of us who ran or walked along the then-limited Brainerd Levee in its earliest days of completion, it's a wonder to behold.

For those who saw it as an inducement to industry, as a tourist draw, as recreation for residents or as an environmentally conscious project, their wishes have been fulfilled.

"I've watched the greenway be built to a scale I never imagined," said Bobby Davenport, who as the Trust for Public Land's first Chattanooga director, helped shepherd the project in its early days.

The completion of South Chickamauga Creek Greenway may be a decade and a half later than once expected, but the city and the country have been a little busy since its mid-1990s planning stages, what with terrorist attacks, wars, a major recession and a global pandemic.

So, to just slightly paraphrase Mark Twain: "Never regret anything that [makes] you smile."

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