Ask Hamilton – Underground Chattanooga: Fact or Fiction?

(above) Notice the cut-off windows on the Loveman Building (circa 1890).

(first photo) Current Loveman’s basement. As you can see, this staircase was built wide with banisters. The basement could have been designed to be a commercial space originally, or it could have been a first floor buried. (second photo) Notice the bricked-in arched window. Why would there be a window in a basement?

Dear Hamilton,
I recently moved to the city and did a walking tour of downtown. I saw some interesting architecture at the bottom of a couple historic buildings, and the tour guide said it was remnants of Underground Chattanooga. Can you tell me what this is?
Curious Newcomer


Dear Newcomer,

Underground Chattanooga is very curious indeed – tops of brick arches at the bottom of buildings, ornate millwork below ground level, and windows located in basements of historic structures – almost like there is a buried city beneath downtown!

Back in the ’70s, Dr. Jeff Brown, a professor of archaeology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, first postulated that a city beneath a city could exist. His evidence was what you saw – underground doorways that go nowhere and windows that seem to be buried. The more he explored, the more he realized that these underground rooms were too fragmented to be a complete, connected buried city. However, enough of these “un-basement-like” rooms exist for there to be questions. These questions have yet to be resolved, and since many of these historic buildings are privately held, there has been no systematic exploration. So the romance and mystery of Underground Chattanooga has continued to spark debate among local historians and curious citizens.

UTC professor Dr. Nick Honerkamp, who directs the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archaeology, explains, “I see the most compelling evidence for Underground Chattanooga, as originally recognized by Dr. Brown: Why put in a window that you can’t see out of? I interpret these architectural non sequiturs to be evidence of the original downtown ground surface that was eventually raised to a higher level. That is, the city’s original surface was filled in, and the first-floor doors and windows were automatically transformed into the basements of several buildings.”

So, why would entire floors be buried and first levels become basements? Flooding.

Before the completion of the Chickamauga Dam in 1940, devastating floods occurred every decade. For example, in the 1867 flood, the Tennessee River rose 58 feet above its normal level, and downtown was four to eight feet underwater. Thankfully, heavy rains no longer submerge downtown, but it was a serious issue destroying homes and affecting commerce that ignited city-wide debate about what solution was best.

Newspaper articles after these devastating floods called for several solutions: Build a levy, build a dam, or raise the town. A dam was too great an undertaking for the small town, and building a levy would have affected river commerce. So taking dirt from higher ground and raising lower parts of downtown seemed to be the best solution.

While there are newspaper articles that call for city-wide raising of street levels, there has yet to be an official paper trail discovered of it actually taking place. There are no engineering plans, no maps, and no newspaper articles that report or detail a city-wide raising of street levels. This is one of the biggest holes in the city-wide raising theory – if there was a city-wide effort, where is the documentation?

According to David Moon of Picnooga, who has led the grassroots effort to collect historical photographs of Chattanooga, there is no photographic evidence either. Moon has compared photos from pre and post 19th century floods to see if whole levels of downtown have been buried. So far, no photographs have shown a distinct difference, although Moon is still looking.

But there is evidence that street raising may have occurred, but a little at a time. For example, the streets surrounding the Sportsbarn on Market Street were raised in the early 1900s. Moon says, “Market Street (between Tennessee River and Fourth Street) was at one time much higher than Broad Street. A trestle once ran from the river and up Broad to about Fourth Street where it met a higher grade, and train tracks continued to the depot. That area was filled in extensively during the early 1900s with the construction of the municipal car barns.”

Similarly, the Loveman Building at 800 Market Street suggests that land was filled in to raise the street level. A retaining wall at least six feet high runs adjacent to the sidewalk but beneath the surface. The basement contains remnants of a forgotten staircase and sealed off windows and doors leading “outside.”

What does your resident history hound think? I think more evidence is necessary before there’s any firm conclusion. So, go exploring (safely and legally, of course). Chattanooga has so much to offer, even beneath its surface.

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound

The Atlantic Depot in the 1860s, 1880s, and 1890s; evidence against underground chattanooga


(above) Historical photos do not show any indication that streets were raised on the Southside. David Moon explains, “The Atlantic Depot was built in 1851. It stood on the southwest corner of 9th Street (MLK Blvd.) until the last remaining portion was razed in the 1950s. As you can see, it started out as two stories, and remained a two story throughout its existence.”


Photos Courtesy of Picnooga and DeepZoom Chattanooga

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