Pioneer of the Towing Industry: Ernest Holmes

Ask Hamilton

Dear Hamilton,


I recently moved to Chattanooga and have been learning about the Scenic City’s history by visiting its many museums – there’s so much to discover! Next up on my itinerary is the International Towing Museum. With it being international, I’m curious as to why, out of all the places in the world, Chattanooga has the honor of representing the towing industry?


Musing Museumgoer

Tow truck from 1940's

Dear Musing Museumgoer,
That would be because Chattanooga is the birthplace of the tow truck! Chattanooga local and automotive expert Ernest Holmes Sr. brought this useful invention to life in 1916. One story alleges that Holmes was inspired to invent a towing device after struggling with a group of men to remove a wrecked car from South Chickamauga Creek.

Before becoming an integral part of the towing industry, Holmes owned an independent auto-repair garage on Market Street. He created his first rudimentary model of a towing device by affixing an iron chain and pull to the back of a Cadillac. After realizing his invention could successfully tow vehicles, Holmes knew he had struck gold. He patented the device in 1918, and with that, the towing industry began!

Holmes invented and built many models of tow trucks from his garage. A year later, he founded Ernest Holmes Co. and began to produce and market these vehicles. One of these models was the twin-boom wrecker, which utilized two cables – one to hook the disabled car and the other to anchor the tow truck.

Praised for his innovation and business acumen, Holmes grew his company, even throughout the Great Depression. During World War II, Holmes supplied the Allied forces with thousands of the first military-grade wrecker.

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Ernest Holmes Pioneer of the towing industryAfter his death in 1945, Holmes was succeeded by his son, Ernest Holmes Jr., who took over the company and continued growing what his father had started. Holmes wreckers began aiding NASCAR, removing damaged cars from the track, and by the mid-1960s, the majority of wreckers in the industry were Holmes units.

Holmes’ grandsons, Gerald Holmes and Bill Holmes, founded Century Wrecker Corp. in 1974, which produced hydraulic towing equipment that’s now used universally in the industry. Miller Industries acquired both Holmes and Century in 1990 and has achieved large-scale success selling these product lines, along with other brands. Today, Miller operates a plant outside of Chattanooga in Ooltewah and stands as a world leader in the towing and recovery industry, with manufacturing plants in three countries.

The International Towing Museum was founded in 1995, honoring the history of the towing industry and the man who was instrumental in starting it over a century ago. An organized group of towing professionals, the Friends of Towing, opened the museum to recognize outstanding individuals in the industry and provide information about its history. It contains a Hall of Fame that now includes over 300 individuals.

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In 2006, the museum created The Wall of the Fallen, a memorial in honor of towing professionals who lost their lives on the job. Its mission statement reads, “To honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to generate public awareness of the dangers involved in the towing and recovery industry, and to permanently record and commemorate those involved in fatalities in the towing and recovery industry.”

Memorial statue at the Wall of the FallenNext time you visit Market Street, look for a historic marker commemorating Ernest Holmes and praising his contributions to the towing and recovery industry. From the nearby Miller Industries plant to the International Towing Museum, Holmes’ legacy lives on in Chattanooga and contributes to the city’s longstanding culture of innovation.

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush
Resident History Hound
Chattanooga, TN

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