(Above) Maclellan Island, present day
The History of Maclellan Island
Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga Public Library and Emily Long
I regularly enjoy walks across the Walnut Street Bridge and have often wondered about that island situated in the middle of the Tennessee River, in the heart of downtown Chattanooga. What is the name of the island, and do you happen to know its history?
Dear Wondering Walker,
Good question! That island you see during your strolls across the Walnut Street Bridge has gone through numerous names and owners over the years. It is now called Maclellan Island, named after the last private owner of the island – Robert J. Maclellan. He was the son of Thomas Maclellan, founder of Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company, or Unum as we know it today. With a desire to protect the island from exploitation and commercialization, Robert J. Maclellan decided to donate the land to the Chattanooga Audubon Society in 1954. Today, Maclellan Island is open to the public for hiking, birdwatching, and camping. Accessible by water only, visitors can experience beautiful wildlife on this 18.8-acre refuge with a rich history.
Maclellan Island’s earliest inhabitants were Native Americans whose island community was likely an extension of Citico, a nearby village. The property was farmed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Thanks to archaeological digs on the land, relics dating man’s history as far back as 12,000 to 15,000 years ago have been uncovered. Pieces of jewelry and some remains, all revealed by floodwaters, gave evidence to three major periods of American Indian history: the Paleo-Indian Period, the Archaic and Mississippian Periods, and the Woodland Period.
One of the earliest names for the island dates back to 1839. The island was first described in a historical document when Thomas Crutchfield named it “Ross’s Landing Island” as he was registering the property. During those days, the island played a key role in the primary means of crossing the river. You see, at the time, there was a “swing ferry,” or “flying ferry,” that was connected by cable to the downstream end of Maclellan Island and used to transport passengers and freight from the north shore to Ross’s Landing.
Floods covered the island over the years, which drove away many early settlers. During the flood of 1867, it was reported that one farmer had to escape by hanging onto the “horns of a heifer.”
Maclellan Island, circa 1910
The island had many owners over the years including Crutchfield, Sam Williams, Tomlinson Fort, and James Whiteside. In 1889, it belonged to the Chattanooga Land, Coal, Iron, and Railway Company followed shortly after by The Chattanooga Land Company. In 1910, it was purchased by The Chattanooga Estates Company. Around this time, it was reported that revelers regularly held noisy parties on the island.
In 1911, the president of The Chattanooga Estates Company, C.E. James, tried to convince the county to turn the island into a public park, stipulating that a bridge be built with steps leading down to the island. However, the deal was rejected, and Market Street was selected as a park site.
Another major flood hit in 1917, ending the late-night parties for a while. But the water eventually receded, and the rowdy activities resumed. This time, bent on ending the loud noise, a group of Bluff View residents called the “Cliff Dwellers” decided to band together and buy the island. One of the vested homeowners was none other than Robert J. Maclellan, who later bought out the other owners and, with the desire to give back, gifted it to the Chattanooga Audubon Society.
Thanks to Maclellan and his vision, the island is home to many species of plants and animals, adding to Chattanooga’s scenic and historic riverfront for walkers like you and so many others to enjoy.
Hope this helps!
Resident History Hound
Maclellan Island, circa 1946