Ask Hamilton – The First Mayor of Chattanooga & The Railroad Bridge

Greetings Chattanoogans!

Once again, Hamilton Bush, your resident history hound, is here to offer up a tidbit or two of local lore. Shake off the winter chill and sit down by the fire, radiator, or air vent to contemplate what follows. Old Hamilton has been churning up the good stuff on Chattanooga for quite some time now, and there is no better way to spend a few relaxing moments than to increase your knowledge of our fair city’s past.

Dear Hamilton Bush,

Mayor Andy Berke has certainly begun to imprint his style and vision for our community since his election. I was wondering if you could sift through your records and tell me who the first mayor of Chattanooga was? 


Mayor Curious 


Dear Curious,

Thanks for the great question. With a few minutes of diligent searching, your information is at hand.

The first mayor of the city of Chattanooga was none other than James Enfield Berry.  Mr. Berry, it seems, was elected to the city’s first board of aldermen on December 20, 1839, just after Chattanooga was granted its charter by the state of Tennessee.  A month later, he attended the first meeting of the seven aldermen in a log cabin schoolhouse located on Lookout Street. Then and there, he was elected to serve a one-year term as Chattanooga’s inaugural mayor.

The rest of the story is short and sweet. Whether Mr. Berry was effective as mayor or not seems lost to history. He was described as “gentle and scholarly”; however, his heart for others left him with financial troubles.  You see dear reader, Mr. Berry, who came to the Chattanooga area from Maryville, Tenn., where he had served as postmaster general for a while, had signed a note of indebtedness to a bank there on behalf of a relative.  When the relative lit out of town, James Enfield was left holding the bag—full of debt and with the rascal’s wife and five children to support. Berry’s wife, Rebecca, opened a boarding house, and the family declared bankruptcy, selling their slaves  to pay the bank back.

Sometime later, the Berry family, which eventually included seven children, traveled southwest to Chattanooga and settled near Ross’ Landing where James Enfield opened a general store in a log structure on the banks of the Tennessee River.  In time, the family became founding members of the area’s Presbyterian Church.

Well, sadly, things went downhill from there. Mrs. Berry and her sister both fell victim to an epidemic of something called “fever chills.” Rebecca died in 1841 and was one of the first to be interred in the reserve on the Gardenshire farm near Citico Creek that became known as the Citizens Cemetery.

Apparently, James Enfield was disillusioned.  He left Chattanooga shortly after Rebecca’s death and settled in Summerville, Ga., where he married his second wife, Araminta McLester. Census records show that by 1850, the couple was living in Jacksonville, Ala., with their young son Josepha, along with William and John, the two youngest sons from his first marriage.  He passed away in Jacksonville in 1857.

Oh yes, there is an intriguing historical footnote. One of James’s granddaughters, Martha Berry, was renowned for the fine school she established in Rome, Ga, that would later become an esteemed institution of higher education. You guessed it—Berry College.



Dear Hamilton Bush,

I love to take strolls on the downtown Riverwalk in the evenings. The scenery is spectacular with the sunset and the twinkling water. When I reach the vicinity of Chickamauga Dam, sometimes I wonder about the railroad bridge that just seems to have always been there. What do you know about it? 


Bridge over Twinkling Water


Dear Twinkling,

That railroad bridge is something of a wonder, isn’t it? Even though the railroad is such an important part of our area’s history, little has been written about that bridge with the curious “house” perched on one of its towers. Just wondering…is that house for rent? Talk about the view!

Now, to the business at hand. In December of 1879, the Cincinnati Southern Railway completed its line connecting the Queen City on the banks of the Ohio River with its Southern cousin along the Tennessee.  It is said that the original railway bridge was built somewhere between 1888-1890, operating using a swing span with a center pivot.

However, following a major fire in 1914, Cincinnati Southern Railway reconstructed the bridge from 1917-1920.  Only one of the original round limestone supports was left standing, and it stands to this day.

The current bridge, sometimes called “Tenbridge,” is described as “a truss bridge with a vertical lift,”  which means the span rises vertically to allow tall barges and boats through while remaining parallel with the deck. Very little power is required  because huge concrete counterweights do most of the lifting.

Until the 1970s, the bridge was staffed full-time with a bridge tender. Today, the bridge is maintained by the Norfolk Southern Railway system  and it is not unusual to see a freight train rolling across the Tennessee River or paused on the span at any given time of day. While the bridge still can lift, it doesn’t happen too often anymore.

By the way, one other interesting item of note is that a pair of Peregrine falcons, a Tennessee endangered species, has frequently nested among the X-shaped steel girders of one of the bridge towers. The falcons consistently return to raise one or two chicks, and this is one of a precious few documented nesting sites in the state. Next time you walk that way, keep your eyes peeled for a Peregrine.

Oh, and that mysterious house? That’s the bridge operator’s control room.


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