This story was originally published in the 2014 April/May issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
An iconic Chattanooga landmark, the Incline Railway lifts passengers up and lowers them down Lookout Mountain while providing unobstructed views of Chattanooga and the entire Tennessee River Valley. Visitors can board the railway at either of the two stations – the Lower Station in the heart of the historic St. Elmo neighborhood or the Upper Station on the mountain. Since its creation almost 120 years ago, the Incline Railway has been dubbed “America’s Most Amazing Mile” for good reason.
While there are other attractions like it in the United States and around the world, the Incline Railway’s rich history sets it apart. During the Civil War, Lookout Mountain was the location of several historic battles, most notably the “Battle Above the Clouds.” Following the battle at Chickamauga, Union troops retreated to Chattanooga, while Confederate forces established themselves on Lookout Mountain. On November 24 in 1863, the two armies met again and fought near the summit of Lookout above the rising fog, thus inspiring the name for the battle.
After the end of the Civil War, tourists from all over the country flocked to Chattanooga to visit these battle sites, along with other natural attractions on Lookout Mountain like Lula Lake and the Natural Bridge. However, many of the sites were difficult to access and reaching the top of Lookout Mountain could take as long as four hours by buggy. In order to better facilitate visitors, a broad gauge passenger railway was constructed in November of 1895 and was simply called “The Incline”.
Built by John Crass and the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway Company, the Incline Railway is the steepest passenger railway in North America, reaching a grade of 72.7% during the journey up the mountain and traveling at a speed of just under 10 mph. The whole trip takes about 20 minutes and is perfect for all ages. After almost 120 years of operation, the Incline Railway is still very much the same as it was in 1895, though now the train cars are pulled by 100-horsepower motors rather than coal as they were until 1911.
Technically categorized as a light railway system, the Incline Railway has been run by the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority (CARTA) since 1973. Matthew Higgins, the CARTA General Manager of the Incline Railway, is in charge of general maintenance and upkeep of the Incline, as well as ensuring that it is in compliance with local and federal guidelines set by the Department of Transportation and The Federal Transit Administration.
In addition to these responsibilities, any changes or improvements to the Incline Railway must first be approved and then enacted through CARTA. In the next four to five years, Higgins hopes that the Incline Railway will be more accommodating to passengers by acquiring new train cars. “These new cars will be much more wheelchair accessible, explains Higgins. “When the current cars were put on the tracks in 1987, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not yet effective, so wheel chair access was not a priority. However, now we will be able to use the ADA guidelines to design cars that are more wheelchair friendly and easy to access for all of our visitors.”
Higgins also hopes to be able to reconfigure the interior of the cars without increasing their overall size. This would allow each Incline Railway car to accommodate more passengers without having to change the track, which would be especially helpful during busy summer months when lines get longer.
The Incline Railway is also unique in how it supports mass transit in Chattanooga. “Our revenue does not just benefit the Incline Railway,” says Higgins. “It is added into the CARTA budget, which helps fund the bus lines throughout Chattanooga. Because of this extra income, the CARTA is distinctive in that it does not have to request as much money from the state and federal government, as other local transit agencies do.”
Though over a century old, the Incline Railway continues to play an important role in the city of Chattanooga. Robert Pettway, president of Partnership Marketing Group, is responsible for public relations and the marketing of the Incline Railway. “The Incline is one of Chattanooga’s oldest attractions and has been used for transportation and the economic development of Lookout Mountain and St. Elmo,” says Pettway. “It has also spurred development over the years for Chattanooga’s $1 billion per year tourism industry that drives taxes to support the arts and cultural icons of the city.”
Because passengers on the Incline must visit both St. Elmo and Lookout Mountain during their trip, they are exposed to the many other attractions that both these locations have to offer. St. Elmo was designated a Local Historic District in 1992 and is home to local artisan shops and galleries as well as a variety of popular restaurants like St. Elmo’s 1885 Grill. Passengers can also visit the Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum and Point Park, located only a few blocks away from the upper station on Lookout. The nearby attractions of Rock City and Ruby Falls are also a few miles away by car.
Higgins, who has probably ridden the Incline Railway hundreds of times, still enjoys taking the trip. “The majority of our riders are people who like history. So I try to tell people that if you ever want to be a part of history, come out and ride the Incline!”
More information about the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway and ticketing is available online at ridetheincline.com.
Photography by Brian Chan