Ask Hamilton – The W Road

The History of Walden’s Ridge and the W Road

 

(Above) Postcard of Walden’s Ridge: “Along the Dixie Highway,” circa 1895

 

Photos Courtesy of the Chattanooga Public Library 

 

……….

 

Dear Hamilton,

I’ve always thought of the W Road as a precarious route to avoid when I’m on Signal Mountain, but I recently heard that the road has been there for over a century. What’s the story behind those hairpin turns? 

Sincerely, 

Musing Motorist

 

sign warning against littering on the w road

Beautification efforts in the 20th century led to signs like the one in this 1951 photo being posted along the W Road to discourage littering.

 

Dear Musing Motorist,

You heard correctly! In fact, the history of the W Road stretches even farther back than the last century. Native Americans originally occupied and hunted on Walden’s Ridge, where the top of the road descends from. These native tribes used the natural pass eventually known as Roger’s Gap to climb the ridge, and this pass would in turn become the location of the W Road we’re all familiar with today. 

However, there’s a lot of history in between the time the natives used the pass and now. Following the loss of those Native Americans due to the Indian Removal Act, settlers began to move into the Chattanooga area. To meet the transportation needs of a growing population, a turnpike was constructed that began in Sequatchie Valley and crossed the ridge to descend through Roger’s Gap. A few decades later, this turnpike would end
up as the only route not occupied by the Union Army during the Siege of Chattanooga. In the final months of 1863, Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his men would finally traverse the road – a journey that proved treacherous to the point of fatality for some soldiers as they navigated the muddied and slippery hairpin curves. 

 

postcard showing the w road from 1930

 Postcard of Walden’s Ridge: “Along the Dixie Highway,” 1930 

 

Following the war, life on Walden’s Ridge slowly returned to normal; that is, until yellow fever and cholera epidemics struck Chattanooga in the 1870s. It was a commonly held belief that disease was fostered by lowlands and swampy environments, and to escape danger, many wealthy families in the valley gathered their belongings and fled to Walden’s Ridge. Some of these families traversed the road in Roger’s Gap and settled near the top of it, relocating to hotels and building residences of their own. 

The growth of the community along the ridge during this period is what led to the construction of the W Road in 1892. It took 11 months of work at the cost of $11,000 (about $337,000 in today’s dollars) to complete the road, which was first surfaced with dirt and later laid with gravel in 1911. During this era, the community at the top of the road was known as Summertown and featured a post office, store, and pavilion for dances that was quite popular with the society crowd. Unfortunately, these dances were discontinued after a moonshiner shoot-out during the Prohibition era, and the pavilion burned down not long after. 

 

horses and buggys and pedestrians on the w road in the 1900s

A mix of residents walking and a horse and buggy driving up the W Road to Summertown, 1907 

 

In 1927, the W Road underwent a major renovation; it was paved, widened to 20 feet, and installed with drains. The community was so thrilled when the road reopened later in the year that a grand reopening barbecue was held on the ridge and attended by some 500 partygoers. 

Nearly a century has passed since that 1927 renovation, and the W Road still holds strong. It was widened again in 1940, and in 1993, markers were placed on the road to commemorate its centennial. Today, the road serves as reliable transportation down from Walden’s Ridge to Mountain Creek Road – as long as your vehicle doesn’t exceed 22 feet in length. 

Despite its long history, the road remains the most notorious for its three incredibly sharp, steep hairpin turns, with switchbacks so tight that it’s often necessary to roll one’s vehicle to a stop, peek around the bend, and make sure that there’s room to make your turn depending on the oncoming traffic. 

One thing’s for sure: We can all be grateful that now we can simply drive our vehicles around those turns, instead of getting out of our buggies to tug our horses along them.

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush

Resident History Hound

Chattanooga, Tennessee

 

Model T Ford on the W Road

 A Ford Model T stopped on the W Road, circa 1910

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