Chattanooga and the Tennessee Aquarium

by Mike Kroll

I just returned from a short trip to Tennessee where I played the role of tourist. I must confess that I had never spent much time in the ''volunteer'' state prior to my parent's retirement move there but I have come to truly appreciate it for both its natural beauty and the wide variety of potential tourist adventures it presents. My folks live in southeastern Tennessee in the foothills of the Smokey Mountains quite near the most visited national park in this country and three communities that aspire to be the next Branson, Missouri. I have experienced those sites and decided to head southwest on I-75 to Chattanooga on the Georgia border.

I wasn't able to spend nearly as much time in this city as I would like but my first visit was enough to entice me to return. Chattanooga is the fourth largest city in this state and got its name from the Creek Indian name for Lookout Mountain, the dominant feature of this city's skyline. Sitting astride the once raging Tennessee River you might think that Chattanooga's growth and fortune arose from river commerce but you'd be mistaken. The importance of this city is instead traceable to its unique geography that made it a natural intersection for early railroads linking Atlanta to Nashville and Knoxville to the western frontier.

Today when someone mentions Tennessee most of us think of Nashville and country music or Memphis, the home of the late Elvis Presley. Very recently Tennessee has been in the news as the home state of Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore. All of these mental images are comparatively recent; Nashville's country music roots trace back to the 1920's but the town didn't really became synonymous with country music until the years following World War II and the Elvis sensation first became prominent with his controversial initial appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. Before that time the most salient image of Tennessee for most Americans was that of the Chattanooga Choo-Choo: ''Pardon me boys, was that the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?''

From its onset Chattanooga was a center of trade between not only northern and southern states but also much of the Atlantic seaboard with the then very wild western frontier. The most powerful Indian tribe of the post Revolutionary War period was the Cherokee who won dominance among the Indian tribes in the region through battle and their successful trading relationship with the European immigrants. The Cherokee word ''Tanasi'' (referring to what is now the Tennessee River) is the origin of the state's name. These trading partners slowly worked to push the Cherokee out of the region culminating in a 1835 treaty that ultimately led to the tribe's ''resettlement'' to Oklahoma.

Although clearly a southern state support for the Confederacy was hardly universal in Tennessee. The easternmost third of the state, where small farms made slave holding less economical, was neutral on the issue of slavery while the remainder of the state was solidly pro-slavery. This led many in eastern Tennessee to actually fight in blue rather than gray uniforms. The prominent eastern Tennessee politician Andrew Johnson won his Democratic seat on the U.S. Senate prior to the Civil War and was the only southern senator to keep his seat during the war.

Surprisingly for most casual observers the state saw more Civil War battles than any other state excepting Virginia. The lack of familiarity with the state's role in the war is undoubtedly due to the historical de-emphasis of the war's western campaign. During the Civil War Chattanooga became a key to the western campaign and one of the two bloodiest battles of the war took place over control of Chattanooga.

Although the North was able to dominate the Mississippi relatively early in the war Chattanooga and its rails was the natural route to Atlanta, the industrial powerhouse of the Confederacy. In September 1863 a huge Union force of 60,000 battled the 66,000 strong army group of the south in northern Georgia over the prize of Chattanooga and control of its rail lines. This was a bloody series of infantry battles that took place along the Chickamauga Creek that ended up as both a tactical southern victory and a key strategic win for the north as they took control of Chattanooga during the skirmishing.

While the Civil War took its toll on the City of Chattanooga Mother Nature dealt the town two additional crippling blows in the form of massive floods in 1867 and 1875. Following the second flood came substantial industrial investment in the city as part of Reconstruction. The nearby natural deposits of coal and iron led Chattanooga to become ''the Pittsburgh'' of the south as iron and steel mills multiplied just prior to the turn of the century. Meanwhile, although Coca Cola was born in Atlanta it was first bottled right in Chattanooga!

With the onset of the Depression came one of the New Deal's biggest modernization programs for the south in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA. Designed with the dual goals of flood control and rural electrification the TVA was instrumental in promoting industrialization of the southern states and raising the standard of living for many a poor farmer. With industrial progress came the pollution and the destruction for profit by mining interests and others. In 1969 federal government environmentalists christened Chattanooga ''the dirtiest city in America.''

Following World War II and the declining importance of railroads in America Chattanooga faced tough times. The downtown deteriorated as the city's population drastically decreased, most notably with the loss of 18,000 manufacturing jobs between 1973 and 1984 following the demise of the environmentally obnoxious steel mills. During the 1980's Chattanooga officials jumped on the environmental bandwagon passing tough new environmental laws, particularly with regard to air quality. These new laws (not to mention the demise of most of the city's industrial base) led to Chattanooga becoming one of the first major cities east of the Mississippi to fully meet federal pollution standards.

In the years since Chattanooga has become an economic development success story transforming itself into an economy based on white-collar office jobs and tourism. Unlike many cities that unrealistically dream of tourism success Chattanooga was favored by ample natural attractions, compelling historical attractions plus business and political leaders with the vision and fortitude to risk substantial public investment in man-made attraction that has proven to be a tremendous success.

Answer the following riddle: What is the height of a 12-story building and houses well over 9,000 ''living specimens'' from all over the world in 400,000 gallons of water? Answer: the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee. According to the folks that run this magnificent place this modern aquarium that sits beside the Tennessee River at Ross's Landing Park is ''the first major freshwater life center ion the world.''

Constructed at a cost of $45 million dollars and opening on May 1, 1992 the Tennessee Aquarium has been an instant success. It not only attracts well over one million visitors annually, it has also sparked the reemergence of downtown Chattanooga and won the praise of aquatic scientists the world over. In my limited view, this aquarium puts all others I have visited to shame not only because of its vast content but also due to the clever and intimate means of display.

You might rightly ask, ''Why build such a costly and magnificent aquarium in little ol' Chattanooga?'' The founding organizers of this project would answer simply, ''why not!'' Tennessee is a very unique state boasting more species of freshwater fish than any other coupled with a wider variety of plants and animals than ''any comparable inland, temperate zone in the world,'' according to Public Relations manager Kathie Fulgham. The principle feature of the aquarium is an ever-changing collection of fish, plants and other life that can be found in and around the Tennessee River.

''The Aquarium is arranged into five major galleries where more than 9,000 animals swim, fly or crawl. The distinguishing feature of the Tennessee Aquarium is its 60-foot high central canyon, an environment designed to give visitors a sense of immersion into the mysterious, watery world of the river.'' In addition to the aquarium the not-for-profit Tennessee Aquarium Corporation also operates an IMAX 3D theater and an educational learning lab caddy-corner from the aquarium.

Tickets for the Aquarium are $11.95 per adult and $6.50 for each child between three and twelve. Upon entering the uniquely modern building topped with an angular glass atrium staff members direct you to the longest escalator I have ever ridden on that whisks you to the top of the building. You step out into an observation deck overlooking the Tennessee River before entering the first exhibit, the Appalachian Cove Forest. This recreates in miniature the mountain source of the Tennessee River in eastern Tennessee.

The Tennessee River was once one of the wildest rivers in North America, that is before man and the Tennessee Valley Authority began tinkering. As any visitor quickly learns the river of today is a far cry from what the first indigenous American Indians knew. The once raging river is today really an elongated reservoir micro-managed and mismanaged by man. There is a galley exhibit devoted to what was once the mighty Tennessee River. Today the river continues to boast of a wide variety of life much of which is represented in the aquarium, a favorite of many visitors are the river otters that barely escaped extinction.

The building is designed so that visitors walk their way down along gentle inclines with both primary and secondary exhibits along the way. The center of the building is largely devoted to the Tennessee River collection but there are also major exhibits of the Mississippi Delta at the Gulf of Mexico and the Zaire River. Secondary exhibits feature smaller habitats mimicking a variety of other river systems found around the world including the Amazon, St. Lawrence, the Russian Volga, the Fly River of New Guinea and the Japanese Nishikigoi.

A relatively new feature of the aquarium is the Discovery Hall. While all of the aquariums exhibits are constantly changed and updated in subtle ways to reflect the changing collection the Discovery Hall is specifically designed to play host to limited engagement special features. Each Discovery Hall exhibit will stay for about two years and the current exhibit is entitled ''Venom: Striking Beauties.''

This is a children's favorite but may not be everyone's cup of tea. ''Housing 50 of the most lethal --yet lovely--species of venomous creatures our goal is not to shock but rather to help visitors develop a new appreciation for these often-misunderstood animals,'' explained Fulgham. Everything from poisonous snakes to deadly spiders and wasps to beautiful poisonous fish can be viewed up close in naturalistic displays. Like everything else at the aquarium the Venom exhibits have been painstakingly designed to accurately reflect the real-life conditions where the creatures are found. If your timing is right you can even watch as these predators attack and eat live prey!

But Dave Collins, the aquarium's curator of forests, is quick to point out that the goal of the Venom exhibit and the aquarium as a whole is educational rather than to provide shocking entertainment. ''For example, despite their notorious reputation for harming humans, these native creatures play a vital role in controlling pests. Most venomous animals, including snakes, are not aggressive. In fact, they're quite reclusive and prefer undisturbed, natural habitats far away from human contact. Most bites are the result of intentional interaction with the snake, not from the snake attacking the human.''

Touring the exhibits is done at the visitor's one pace and can easily take three to four hours if you study each exhibit closely. The facility is open every day except Christmas and Thanksgiving days from 10am till 6pm. Tickets can even be purchased on-line and groups of ten or more receive a small break on the regular admission price. Ample parking is available in downtown Chattanooga close to the aquarium at modest prices, but none is free.

Aquarium staff are available throughout to answer questions or help visitors but organized tours are limited to groups such as the ever-present collection of school children. Not surprisingly, the Tennessee Aquarium is a very popular field trip destination of schools and children's groups from miles around. The presence of lots of children can be both satisfying to witness and a major nuisance. The kids are frequently noisy and run around in a state of amazement that must cause them to be oblivious of any other aquarium visitors. Staff suggested that visitors who would prefer to not cross paths with legions of little ones might wish to come in mid to late afternoon.

No matter whether you are considering a vacation destination or simply find yourself passing in the vicinity of Chattanooga, you owe to yourself to take the time to check out this wonderful aquarium. You can learn even more by visiting its website at I know I will make a return visit in the future.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 19, 2000

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