Ask Hamilton – St. Elmo Historic District

Dear Hamilton,
I’m new to the area, and I stumbled upon a charming neighborhood called St. Elmo. Could you tell me more about the neighborhood and how it received its name?
Wondering Wanderer

St. Elmo & Incline, circa 1900

St. Elmo's Founder Colonel Abraham Malone Johnson in Chattanooga

Colonel Abraham Malone Johnson, born in Gainesville, Georgia, in 1830, left home at 17 to make a name for himself. In 1851, he arrived in Chattanooga, and he and his brother-in-law, John P. Bryson, started a tanning business. Two years later, he became a post office route agent for the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad. During this time, he met Thankful Whiteside, who was the daughter of Col. James A. Whiteside, one of Chattanooga’s founders and leading citizens. Whiteside didn’t think Johnson was suitable for his daughter, who at that time was engaged to another man. Two days before her wedding, she ran off with Johnson!

Dear Wanderer,

St. Elmo is a beloved neighborhood here and one of several Chattanooga neighborhoods designated as a local historic district and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You may have noticed the late Victorian architecture styles of Queen Anne, gabled ell, and Colonial Revival, along with early 20th century styles of Craftsman/bungalow and Tudor Revival.

Colonel Abraham Malone Johnson and his wife, Thankful Whiteside Johnson, are considered the founders of St. Elmo. They acquired land at the foot of Lookout Mountain shortly after the Civil War and built a beautiful residence on Alabama Avenue. Col. Johnson was instrumental in the formation of several local organizations and companies, including the water company that would become Tennessee American Water and The Chattanooga Medicine Company (now Sanofi).

As Chattanooga residents fled the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, many settled on Lookout Mountain and at the base of the mountain. Seeing the desire for land outside the city, Colonel Johnson divided his land into residential and commercial lots for sale and named the burgeoning community St. Elmo in honor of the popular 19th century novel, St. Elmo. The author, Augusta Evans, was a personal friend of his wife and is said to have written part of the novel while visiting them.

St. Elmo was still somewhat removed from Chattanooga proper, so Col. Johnson, along with Z.C. Patten and other prominent Chattanooga residents, financially backed the formation of The Chattanooga-St. Elmo Street Railroad Company, which formed a horse-drawn street rail line between St. Elmo and the city in 1885. By the 1890s, electric streetcar lines began running from Chattanooga to St. Elmo, increasing residents’ interest in moving out to the “country.” Opened in 1895, the Incline Railway allowed for easier transportation up and down the mountain and drew in tourists as well.

As the small community grew, they established their own schools and churches, and in 1905, St. Elmo incorporated and formed a town commission. It wasn’t until 1929 that the city of Chattanooga annexed St. Elmo.

If you’d like to know more, there is a St. Elmo resident, Jeffrey Web, who has written a book on St. Elmo called, St. Elmo, Yesterday and Today.

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush,
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, Tennessee

St. Elmo & Incline circa 1920 in Chattanooga


St. Elmo & Incline, circa 1920

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