top of page
  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Tennessee Riverwalk

The Tennessee Riverwalk is an 11.1-mile trail that meanders through the urban landscapes and diverse communities of Chattanooga, Tennessee. This recreational corridor explores the city’s intriguing social and industrial histories while appreciating the Tennessee River Valley’s delicate natural ecosystems.

Mile 0 – Chickamauga Dam

The Tennessee Riverwalk's northern terminus originates at Chickamauga Dam—an exemplar of New Deal innovation. Prior to the dam's conception, the Tennessee River was an untamed, flood-prone waterway that ravaged its environs. Chattanooga was particularly vulnerable to the river's wrath, sustaining millions of dollars in annual property damage. The Tennessee River was also a cesspool for mosquito-borne illnesses (such as malaria and yellow fever) which caused thousands of anguishing deaths. During the early 20th century, the Tennessee River Valley was one of the most destitute regions in America—fewer than 3% of inhabitants had access to electricity and indoor plumbing. The lack of modern necessities and adequate healthcare resources only exasperated the spread of disease.

In 1936, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) launched its Unified Development of the Tennessee River System program—a natural resource management initiative that facilitated economic stimuli and established modern public utilities in the impoverished Valley region. The plan also contained provisions for insecticide treatments to control proliferative mosquito populations. The Chickamauga Dam was just one of forty-nine TVA projects designed to maintain the Tennessee River's intricate reservoir network. Through imminent domain, the federal government seized over 61,000 acres east of Chattanooga forcing hundreds to relocate, including the entire town of "Old Harrison,” the former seat of Hamilton County.

Chickamauga Dam—standing 129 feet tall and spanning 5,800 feet across the Tennessee River—was completed on January 15, 1940. Its hydroelectrical generator became operational several weeks later and continues to provide energy to millions of residents downstream. On September 2, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the monumental public work:

“This Chickamauga Dam…built by the Tennessee Valley Authority for the people of the United States,

is helping to give to all of us human control of the watershed of the Tennessee River in order that it

may serve in full the purposes of men…[W]e are celebrating the opening of a new artery of commerce,

new opportunities for recreation, relief from the desolation of floods, and new low cost energy which

has begun to flow to the homes and farms and industries in seven American states.”

The realization of Chickamauga Dam consequently gave rise to Chickamauga Lake—a popular spot for water sports and boating activities—and two state parks: Booker T. Washington and Harrison Bay.

Just past mile marker two stands the Chickamauga Mound (c. 900 BCE to 900 CE). This Indigenous earthen structure—almost completely obscured by modern industry—was once the nucleus of a thriving Woodland village and most likely used to inter high-ranking tribal officials. Sadly, the mound was heavily damaged by looters during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its eroding vestiges remain barricaded behind a chain-link fence, sequestered from the ever-evolving landscape.

The Tennessee Riverwalk passes through Amnicola Marsh near the 3.3 mile mark. During the Late Antebellum Period, Amnicola was the location for one of Chattanooga’s finest estates. Thomas Crutchfield Jr.—a hotel proprietor and former mayor of Chattanooga—oversaw the homestead's construction and maintained ownership throughout the American Civil War. On November 24, 1863, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee (nearly 17,000 soldiers) utilized Crutchfield’s farm as a staging ground for the Battle of Missionary Ridge. After the battle, Amnicola became a field hospital for Union and Confederate soldiers. While the manor house survived the conflict, its appeal was permanently damaged. Amnicola sat in a state of disrepair for several decades before being razed in the early twentieth century.

Mile 6 – Maclellan Island

At first glance, Maclellan Island appears unremarkable—an uninhabited strip of riverine terrain beneath the Veterans Memorial Bridge. However, this inconspicuous land mass maintains a five-hundred-year-old history that typifies early European encounters with indigenous American tribes.

In 1559, Luis de Velasco, the Viceroy of New Spain, appointed Tristán de Luna y Arellano to establish a settlement along the Gulf of Mexico and forge an overland trade route to Santa Elena (modern-day Parris Island, South Carolina), which would help legitimize Spain’s claim to La Florida. On June 11, thirteen Spanish galleons—carrying supplies and 1,500 settler-soldiers—departed from San Juan de Ulua (Veracruz, Mexico) for Floridian shores. The expeditionists landed near Barrancas de Santo Tomé on August 14 and spent the next several weeks assembling their outpost’s infrastructure. However, on September 19, a hurricane destroyed the majority of de Luna’s fleet still anchored in Pensacola Bay, leaving the Spaniards stranded with meager rations. The colonists managed to eke out a living for several months, but were forced to relocate in February 1560. The Spanish moved north along the Alabama River and encountered the abandoned native village of Nanipacana, where they secured an additional month of provisions.

With supplies running dangerously low, de Luna dispatched Sergeant Major Mateo del Sauz to lead a foraging party of two hundred men towards the Coosa Chiefdom in April 1560. Sauz’s detachment scavenged the Appalachian foothills for nearly three months before encountering a Coosa village (contemporary Calhoun, Georgia) in late July. The local chieftains agreed to reprovision the starving Spanish in exchange for mercenary support against the rebellious Napochies—a Coosa vassal state that refused to provide their compulsory tributes. On August 21, three hundred Coosa warriors and fifty Spanish soldiers attacked a Napochie province situated along the Tennessee River. The Napochies fled to Maclellan Island where a brief engagement ensued. Outnumbered and overwhelmed by superior Spanish firepower, the Napochies surrendered.

With no appreciable prospects for colonization, Sauz’s detachment departed the Tennessee River Valley. They returned to Nanipacana in November 1560, but found the village deserted. De Luna’s main contingent had returned to Pensacola Bay several weeks prior due to supply scarcity and deteriorating morale. When Sauz finally rejoined de Luna later that winter, the obstinate Governor was encouraged by the Coosa expedition’s reports and attempted to organize another inland voyage; however, de Luna’s men mutinied—a flashpoint of mounting tension and frustration with the floundering conquista. On January 30. 1561, Viceroy Velasco relieved de Luna of his colonial governorship and recalled him to Spain. Angel de Villafañe became the new Governor of Pensacola Bay in April 1561. The colony was ultimately abandoned several months later.

Today, the Audubon Society maintains stewardship over Maclellan Island, which functions as a wildlife sanctuary and primitive camp site. For those interested in exploring, the island is only accessible by boat.

Situated due west of Maclellan Island is the Bluff View Art District—the most vibrant and heavily-trafficked half-mile on the Riverwalk. There are several tourists attractions within this section of town, including the Tennessee Aquarium, River Gallery Sculpture Gardens, Houston Museum of Decorative Arts, and Hunter Museum of American Art.

Mile 7.2 – The Walnut Street Bridge

Completed in 1891, the Walnut Street Bridge is an iconic piece of Tennessee River infrastructure. The brainchild of chief engineer Edwin Thatcher, this 2,376-foot Camelback truss bridge was the focal point of Chattanooga’s transportation network, connecting the historically black Hill City community (today’s North Shore neighborhood) to the predominantly white downtown.

Hill City was originally founded as “Camp Contraband”—an asylum for escaped slaves following the Union occupation of Chattanooga in November 1863. More than six thousand African Americans found refuge within this settlement by the end of 1865. Many labored for the Union army—building military bridges, roads, and miscellaneous infrastructure—while others volunteered to serve in the United States Colored Troops. During Reconstruction, Hill City developed into a sophisticated municipality, providing freedmen numerous opportunities for educational advancement, professional development, and civic engagement.

While a tangible symbol of unification, the Walnut Street Bridge possesses a tragic history of racialized injustice. On February 9, 1893, a black man named Alfred Blount was arrested for allegedly attacking a white woman, Mrs. M. A. Moore. While imprisoned in the Hamilton County jail, Blount was forcibly abducted by a gang of white vigilantes and dragged to the Walnut Street Bridge, where he was mercilessly beaten, stabbed, and ultimately hung. When the coroner retrieved Blount’s body around 1 am, an estimated one hundred bullets had pierced the lifeless man’s body. A cursory investigation failed to identify any of the individuals complicit in Blount’s senseless lynching.

On January 23, 1906, another white woman, Nevada Taylor, was sexually assaulted while walking through Chattanooga’s St. Elmo District. While Miss Taylor could only provide a vague description of the perpetrator, police found cause to apprehend Ed Johnson, an African American male, for the crime. On the night of Johnson’s arrest, a mob of fifteen hundred white Chattanoogans surrounded the county prison demanding blood. Sheriff Joseph Shipp, who anticipated such vigilantism, had preemptively evacuated Johnson to Nashville where he awaited trial. During the criminal proceedings, Johnson maintained his innocence, asserting that he was working in a saloon at the time of Miss Taylor's attack. More than a dozen witnesses, white and black, confirmed his alibi. Despite this overwhelming evidence to acquit, the all-white jury found Johnson guilty of rape on February 11. Judge Samuel D. McReynolds condemned him to death.

Although Johnson’s state-appointed attorneys declined further legal counsel, two black lawyers, Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins, appealed his verdict to the Tennessee Supreme Court. When that appeal was denied on March 3, Parden filed a writ of habeas corpus with the United States Circuit Court in Knoxville, alleging that Johnson’s constitutional rights had been violated. Parden argued that the absence of black jurors allowed racial prejudice to influence deliberations. Furthermore, constant intimidation and threats of retaliatory violence prevented Johnson’s original legal team from providing an adequate defense. District Court Judge Charles Dickens Clark dismissed Parden’s motion on March 10; however, in his ruling, Clark encouraged Johnson’s legal team to petition Tennessee Governor John Cox for a ten-day stay of execution, which would provide ample time to file an appeal with the United States Supreme Court. Governor Cox expeditiously approved Johnson’s stay—pushing back his execution date to March 20—and Justice John Marshall Harlan agreed to review Johnson’s case on March 17. The Supreme Court subsequently granted Parden’s appeal and telegraphed their decision to Chattanooga authorities, delaying Johnson’s death sentence indefinitely.

The Supreme Court’s acquiescence outraged white Chattanooga residents. On the evening of March 19, a mob mobilized towards the virtually unguarded Hamilton County prison—Sheriff Shipp had ambiguously decided to excuse all law enforcement officers from guard duty except for Jeremiah Gibson, the 72-year-old nighttime jailer. The incensed crowd spent three hours hammering down the jailhouse doors before finally breaching Johnson’s holding cell around 11:30 pm. The vigilantes paraded their wrongfully convicted captive to the Walnut Street Bridge; a noose hanging ominously from its rafters. As the rope tightened around his neck, Johnson exclaimed, “God bless you all. I am innocent.” And with that, he was hoisted into the air. Several insurrectionists started shooting after two excruciating minutes. Fifty bullets found their target before a stray round severed the noose. Johnson lay defenseless on the ground when one member of the mob (later identified as a sheriff’s deputy) fired five shots into his temple. As the crowd dispersed, someone pinned a note on Johnson’s mutilated corpse that read “To Justice Harlan: Come get your n----- now.”

The lynching of Ed Johnson precipitated national repugnance. “In all likelihood, this was a case of an innocent man improperly branded a guilty brute and condemned to die from the start,” remarked Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson’s murder “contemptuous of the [Supreme] Court” and directed the Secret Service to perform a preliminary investigation. Black communities across the Jim Crow South raged with activism. In Chattanooga alone, thousands attended Johnson’s funeral, marching in solidarity against bigotry and racial injustice.

The lynch mob’s reprehensible actions explicitly challenged the Supreme Court’s authority over state criminal proceedings. Attorney General William H. Moody and Chief Justice Melville Fuller both agreed that the Chattanooga conspirators should be held liable for Johnson’s death. On May 28, 1906, Solicitor General Henry M. Hoyt filed paperwork with the Department of Justice charging twenty-seven individuals, including Sheriff Shipp, with contempt. The ensuing United States v. Shipp was the first and only criminal trial in Supreme Court history.

On October 15, the defendants and their corresponding legal representatives assembled on Capitol Hill and issued a collective plea of “not guilty.” After establishing constitutional jurisdiction to try the case, the Supreme Court directed Deputy Clerk James Maher to collect evidence at the United States Customs House in Chattanooga. Thirty-one government witnesses issued sworn statements into the evidentiary record between February 12 – 16, 1907. The court recessed until June 15, when the defense presented their deponents, resulting in an additional two weeks of testimony. In March 1909, the trial reconvened in Washington D.C. for closing arguments.

On May 24, 1909, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on United States v. Shipp. Chief Justice Fuller delivered the majority opinion, finding that Shipp, jailer Jeremiah Gibson, and four other defendants acted in “utter disregard for [the] court’s mandate.” All six were found guilty of criminal contempt. Sentences ranged between sixty and ninety days in federal prison. Though meager in punishment, these convictions reinforced the Supreme Court’s intervening power in lower criminal cases to maintain due process of law.

The Walnut Street Bridge was closed to vehicular traffic in 1978. It was slated for demolition the following decade, but city officials lacked the necessary funds to authorize such an undertaking. With the bridge’s future uncertain, members of Chattanooga Venture—a grassroots community enrichment campaign composed of local historians, civil leaders, and social activists—banded together to save the endangered engineering icon. After being added to the National Register of Historic Places in February 1990, the Walnut Street Bridge underwent extensive repairs and structural modifications. In 1993, the bridge reopened as a linear park—considered the world’s longest pedestrian bridge at the time—reconnecting the North Shore and Downtown communities while propelling urban revitalization efforts.

Mile 7.3 – Ross’s Landing

Ross’s Landing—the antecedent settlement of Chattanooga—was originally a ferry crossing established by John Ross, a prevailing political figure in Cherokee history. Ross was born on October 3, 1790, in Turkeytown, Cherokee Territory. Although John’s father was Scottish, his mother was part Cherokee, thus providing her descendants matrilineal accession and acceptance into the tribal nation. Ross embraced his Native heritage and spent his childhood years learning cultural rites and traditions, in addition to formalized western education. As a young adult, he fought alongside fellow Cherokee warriors and American allies during the Creek War (a derivative conflict during the War of 1812) and earned the rank of lieutenant following the decisive Battle of Horseshoe Bend. In 1816, after having fulfilled his military obligations, Ross settled along the Tennessee River—the formal boundary between the United States and Cherokee Nation—and constructed his commercial wharf.

In 1818, Ross was elected President of the National Cherokee Council. Nine years later, he helped draft the Cherokee Constitution—an analogous adaptation of the United States Constitution—to legitimize indigenous authority over their homelands, which were endangered by Georgia's predatory annexation laws. However, with the discovery of gold in 1828, state policymakers opened much of Cherokee Territory to non-Native settlement. Ross, now the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, viewed this invasion as a direct violation of indigenous rights. He appealed to the federal government for protection, but newly-elect President Andrew Jackson—Ross’s former militia commander during the War of 1812—dismissively urged Cherokee compliance. Jackson’s humanitarian indifference was further demonstrated in May 1830 when he signed the Indian Removal Act, which instituted presidential authority to negotiate land exchange treaties with Native American tribes residing within existing state borders.

The Cherokee Nation continued its fight for sovereignty through the federal court system. Former Attorney General William Wirt represented the Cherokees in two separate Supreme Court cases: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). The first lawsuit recognized the Cherokees as a “domestic dependent nation”—having surrendered some autonomic powers to the United States in prior treaties—rather than a foreign state. After considering this legal terminology, the Supreme Court ruled that they lacked jurisdiction to hear the case, given the Cherokees’ quasi-sovereign status. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court expanded on its previous year’s ruling, acknowledging the Cherokee’s right to self-governance and reaffirming the exclusive federal power to influence Native affairs. Georgia’s laws were deemed unconstitutional, but the intrusions continued. President Jackson refused to intervene, allegedly remarking, “[Justice] John Marshall has made his decision, now left him enforce it.”

Following Jackson’s reelection in 1832, some Cherokee minority leaders—namely Major Ridge and Elias Boudinot—accepted their inevitable eviction. This defective “Treaty Party” subsequently opened extralegal negotiations with the federal government, undermining the Ross’s efforts to preserve Cherokee sovereignty. In 1835, Treaty Party representatives signed the controversial Treaty of New Echota, which capitulated all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for $5.7 million and tantamount acreage in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Although Ross ardently rejected its nefarious terms, the treaty was ultimately ratified by Congress on May 23, 1836.

In 1838, American forces began confiscating tribal lands and imprisoning their former inhabitants in internment camps across the southeast. More than 2,400 Cherokee were held at Ross’s Landing, which became an embarkation point for the infamous Trail of Tears. This forced westward expulsion—marred by malnourishment, disease, and harsh natural elements—claimed hundreds of lives, including Ross’s wife, Quatie. On November 14, 1838, ten days after the final Cherokee contingents unceremoniously departed, Ross’s Landing was officially renamed to Chattanooga. John Ross remained the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation until his death on August 1, 1866.

Mile 9.7 – Stringer’s Ridge

Stringer’s Ridge rises above the Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District along the Tennessee River’s north shore. On September 22, 1863, this forested prominence was fortified by Union General Walter C. Whitaker’s brigade—the 22nd Michigan Infantry and Light Artilleries of the 10th Indiana and 18th Ohio—to contest Confederate embattlements positioned atop Lookout Mountain. Federal soldiers occupying Stringer’s Ridge (and Chattanooga as a whole) were subjected to near-constant siege warfare that effectively interrupted all incoming supply lines. The lack of adequate rations was so acute on Stringer’s Ridge, troops nicknamed it “Starvation Point.”

The Union victory at the Battle of Wauhatchie (October 28 – 29, 1863) decisively broke the Confederate siege and rejuvenated the once-beleaguered Federal army. On November 24, the batteries on Moccasin Bend participated in the Battle of Lookout Mountain—romanticized in popular culture as the “Battle Above the Clouds”—which weakened the Confederate left flank’s integrity prior to the critical Battle of Missionary Ridge. Today, Stringer’s Ridge operates as a 92-acre wilderness park and preservation easement with some historic earthworks still visible within its boundaries.

Mile 10.3 – The Foundry Complex

The American Civil War invigorated Chattanooga’s commercial and manufacturing economy. Between November 1863 and June 1865, Federal military engineers laid the groundwork for industrial infrastructure, converting Chattanooga’s riverfront into a bustling inland port and warehouse district. During Reconstruction, many Union veterans relocated to Chattanooga, bringing with them much-needed financial capital for expedient postbellum regrowth. For example, in 1867, veteran John T. Wilder (of “Lightning Brigade” fame) established the Roane Rolling Mill at the base of Lookout Mountain.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dozens of business entities supplemented Chattanooga’s sprawling southside industrial complex. Companies like Combustion Engineering (C-E) and Ross-Meehan were particularly impactful during World War II, constructing mechanical components for Sherman tanks, Liberty Ships, and landing craft from the Invasion of Normandy.

While the manufacturing economy brought prosperity for some, industrial buildup and unregulated waste disposal generated severe water and air contamination—Chattanooga was once named the “Dirtiest City in America.” This pervasive pollution did not just damage the environment, but also working-class families who lived in “obsolete and decayed” urban communities. Diseases like tuberculosis ran amok while public sanitation facilities were neglected by city administrators.

During the 1950s, civic leaders implemented an urban renewal plan—the “Golden Gateway”—to address the economic and social burdens plaguing inner city neighborhoods. The federal government placed stake in Chattanooga’s gentrification program, matching each budgetary dollar spent. Between 1958 and 1978, the Golden Gateway ballooned into the twelfth-costliest ($10.7 million) and fourth-largest (410 acres) redevelopment project in American history. Construction crews demolished over 1,200 structures and excavated 160 feet from Cameron Hill to provide dirt for Interstate 24 and U.S. Route 27. More than 1,400 families were displaced, most of whom being African-American. Those who could afford it moved to Signal Mountain. Others were forced to relocate to low-income housing projects.

While the Golden Gateway completely restructured Chattanooga’s westside residential communities, it did little to improve the southside manufacturing sectors. Labor tensions, sociopolitical conflict, and increased foreign competition triggered rampant deindustrialization during the latter twentieth century. Today, only a few deteriorating examples remain of Chattanooga’s bygone industrial prowess.

The Riverwalk Trail passes through the abandoned U.S. Pipe and Whelan Foundry complex. The U.S. Pipe and Foundry Company was one of the nation’s finest iron fabricators before shuttering operations in 2006. The Wheland Foundry served as a multifunctional manufactory, producing water wheels, mill equipment, and oil drilling components. During World War II, the metalworks assembled guns, ammunition shells, and anchor windlasses for the U.S. military. After the war, Wheland became a leading manufacturer of automotive brakes; but despite its versatility, the foundry went under in 2003. Crumbling concrete and overgrown vacant lots line the Tennessee Riverwalk’s final mile before it terminates on St. Elmo Avenue.

The Tennessee Riverwalk is a journey through Chattanooga’s past and a glimpse into its promising future. The burgeoning gears of industry that once dominated this urban landscape have largely been supplanted by architectural redevelopment, cultural arts, and ecological conservation efforts, all of which augment the recreational trail’s soaring popularity. Chattanooga continues to transform amidst its ongoing renaissance, but its historic footprint remains, however subtle, waiting to be rediscovered along the Riverwalk. Trail Rating: 7/10

Check out Visit Chattanooga, All Trails, Trail Link, Southern Outings, and Hamilton County Parks and Recreation for more information on the Tennessee Riverwalk

For more on Chickamauga Dam, visit the Tennessee Valley Authority, Project Gutenberg, and UC Santa Barbara

Contemplate the dark side of Chattanooga's racial history in the Washington Post, Famous Trials, Dark Fiber, and CBC


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page