“I've reach'd the land of corn and wine, and all its riches freely mine. Here shines undimm'd one blissful day, for all my night has pass'd away. O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land. As on thy highest mount I stand, I look away across the sea, where mansions are prepared for me and view the shining glory shore, my heav'n, my home forevermore."
With the singing of the hymn, “Beulah Land,” the dedication of the White Oak Cemetery began on November 3, 1895. Rev. Edward L. Fillmore and Rev. W. Leroy Patten, who both served at the nearby Hill City Methodist Episcopal Church, led the large gathering of residents in prayer after the opening hymn. The pastors proceeded to deliver prepared remarks about the significance of the day.
The consecration of the new cemetery ended with the singing of the doxology, as the November 4, 1895 Chattanooga Daily Times reporter wrote, “the last strains of that impressive melody died away, the sun disappeared behind the crest of Raccoon Mountain, casting the lingering rays over the scene, and the newly dedicated “God’s Acre” appeared battled in a halo of glory, as though Nature herself was assisting in consecrating this “garden with flowers rounds about,” and had looked upon the work, and found that it was good.”
We have walked into the history of the White Oak Cemetery, later called Chattanooga Memorial Park, a bit in the middle of things. “In medias res,” as the Romans would say. Let’s go back and review why that a burial site was needed at all on the north side of the Tennessee River.
The north shore had been rapidly growing due to Chattanooga’s boom as a manufacturing and transportation center. The incoming residents began to look across the river for places to build homes. The higher ground of what came to be called Hill City was safer during floods than the south side of the Tennessee River had been.
The Chattanooga Company Limited, with Thomas F. Nicholl as agent, was established and led the conversion of the north shore from agricultural to urban uses. Mr. Nicholl would later serve as superintendent of White Oak Cemetery.
“Keep Your Eyes on North Chattanooga – the Ideal Suburb” read an advertisement in the 1895 Chattanooga city directory. The 1890 completion of the Walnut Street Bridge provided the first permanent link to Hill City.
People do not live forever in this world, so a search was conducted for a suitable site for a cemetery. West of Hill City across Stringer’s Ridge was Alto Vista, a farm owned by J.E. Sawyer. This was on the Dry Valley Road, later called Dayton Boulevard, and near the White Oak spring. The latter had been Gen. Sherman’s secret camp during the Civil War, and was already been used as a park by local residents in the 1890’s.
The Sawyer farm was acquired, and converted into a cemetery typical of those of the era. Like Forest Hills Cemetery in St. Elmo, the White Oak Cemetery was landscaped like a park would be. Perhaps there was a different attitude about cemeteries in the 1890’s. Average life expectancy was less than today, with epidemics such as yellow fever and other dread diseases claiming even the very young.
Transportation to the White Oak Cemetery was a bit of a challenge in its early years. The Stringer’s Ridge Tunnel was not completed until 1911. However, the November 3, 1895 Chattanooga Daily Times reported that the site was “easily reached by Riverview or Vallombrosa electric lines.”
Among the longest tenured employees ever at White Oak Cemetery/Chattanooga Memorail Park was Harry K. Ritchey. In an August 31, 1980 Chattanooga News-Free Press interview, Mr. Ritchey recalled how that he had joined the staff of the cemetery in 1924. “I haven’t missed a paycheck since,” he told reporter Dana Narramore. “A burial is just something that has to be done,” said Mr Ritchey, who was 75 at the time.
The White Oak spring, long associated with the cemetery, has, for many years, also been called the “Red Bank Duck Pond.” This is a favorite outing of many parents and children, who enjoy the peaceful scenery of the park that is in the shadow of a place of eternal rest.
"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost."
If you have other information on the White Oak Cemetery/Chattanooga Memorial Park, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am not familiar with the Vallombrosa community referenced in this article. Could someone help me out there?