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The 'Dynamo of the South' emerges against all odds

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

November 28th, 2020 | by Linda Moss Mines | Copyright © 2021

The war had ended, and the military troops had been withdrawn.

Chattanooga, site of a series of significant battles between the U.S. and Confederate troops, was damaged but poised to recover. Its geographic location as a gateway between Northern banking and industrial centers and the fertile agricultural fields of the South seemed ideal for a new birth combining industry, transportation and innovative restructuring to serve a postwar nation.

The path to prosperity was not without difficulties. A war that had stretched across five Aprils had left the entire newly reunited nation with several profound problems, not limited to just rebuilding the economy. It is easy to forget that one in four soldiers who went to war never returned home. A regiment, generally formed with the population from a few contiguous counties, marched off to battle together. During and following the war, Hamilton and surrounding counties dealt with the resulting casualties. One in 13 Civil War soldiers returned home permanently impaired, missing one or more limbs. Jobs on the railroads, in the mills and foundries or on the family farms suddenly became more difficult. In Chattanooga, the awareness of veterans' needs led to an increase in church outreach programs and community-based organizations, often thrusting women into social leadership.

As the city and its residents struggled with a new beginning, violent rains in 1867 caused the Tennessee River to crest 30 feet above flood stage. Miraculously, there were no casualties, but the extensive damage to property led to "city planning" programs that would lessen the potential impacts. Recollections from the period recall boats traveling on Market Street and, just four years later, note that a series of fires burned most of the businesses and buildings between Seventh and Ninth streets.

Despite these difficulties, Chattanooga was poised for a rebirth, financially, socially and educationally.

Business and industrial opportunities increased exponentially. Local students of history will recall the story of Robert Cravens as an excellent example of resilience and ingenuity. Cravens returned to Chattanooga only to discover his home and his iron business destroyed; at the age of 60, he was financially ruined. While many considered him "too old" to rebuild, Cravens charged forward and introduced coke-fired iron processing to the region by 1868. By 1870, local charcoal and coke-fired smelters were producing more than 150,000 tons of iron. Twenty years later, production had increased to 1.8 million tons of pig iron, and the Chattanooga business community included machine shops, plow-makers, boiler shops, stove works and pipe manufacturing businesses. The number of small businesses and larger emerging foundries and industrial plants led newspapers across the nation to refer to Chattanooga as the "Pittsburgh of the South" or, as Chattanooga High School alums like to say, the "Dynamo of the South."

As early as December 1868, a local newspaper, the Chattanooga Republican, carried a series of open invitations encouraging "new blood" to consider Chattanooga. One such advertisement read: "The people of Chattanooga, no longer wishing to stay in the background, and feeling the necessity of immediately developing the vast mineral resources surrounding them, by which they can place themselves on the high road to wealth, prosperity and power, extend a GENERAL INVITATION to all CARPET-BAGGERS to leave the bleak winds of the North and come to Chattanooga. Those who wish to come can be assured they WILL NOT BE REQUIRED TO RENOUNCE THEIR POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS TENETS, as the jurisdiction of the KU KLUX and other vermin does not extend over these parts."

Much of the growth was spurred by these new residents to the area, joining prewar citizens who had survived the conflict. The Rev. Thomas Hooke McCallie, Joseph Ruohs, Louis Shepard, John Long and others greeted scores of newcomers, including Tomlinson Fort, T.G. Montague, W.P. Rathburn, H. Clay Evans, former Capt. Hiram Chamberlain and T.H. Payne. Chattanooga welcomed "capital, brains, and muscle."

By 1880, Chattanooga boasted a population of 13,000 people but, only two years later, the number was more than 18,000. More than 20% of that population was Black; Chattanooga, while segregated, was diverse in its economic opportunities.

Taking the regional lead in the political arena, the city had allowed freedmen to vote in 1866 and, in 1868, seated a "man of color" on the Board of Aldermen, C.P. Letcher. When challenged, a committee affirmed the election in a spirited report that cited "the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Civil Rights legislation."

The Dynamo was gaining steam

Linda Moss Mines, the Chattanooga and Hamilton County historian, serves on the Tennessee Historical Commission and as regent, Chief John Ross Chapter, NSDAR.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress / Veterans of the Civil War returned home to Chattanooga to help the city rebuild.

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