Kirkman Students Witnessed West Side Urban Renewal Project

Sunday, December 9, 2012 - by Harmon Jolley

The Public Library in downtown Chattanooga has a nice collection of local school yearbooks in their collection.  The books capture not only the photographs of students and school happenings, but also events happening in the outside world.   Over the years, one can read of wars, the environmental movement, Watergate, and Chattanooga floods and blizzards.

The 1960 Kirkman High School yearbook contained photographs of major changes taking place adjacent to the campus on the north end of Chestnut Street.

  In the late 1950’s and continuing into the 1960’s, the West Side Urban Renewal project was being pursued.  The tasks on the project plan included a new bridge across the Tennessee River, demolition of all of the buildings that made up the West Side and Cameron Hill neighborhoods, and contouring of the steep slopes of that area to make it more appealing to developers.

All of the work on the project took place in proximity to Kirkman High.  The July 10, 1959 Chattanooga Times included an interview with the school’s principal.  The article said, “As Principal Robert A. Taylor looks out of one of the rear windows of the school and across Pine Street, he sees a mass of dirt and rock where houses and yards and trees once stood.  He is looking at Reservoir Hill.  The crown has been cut down as the Oman Construction Company took dirt for fill purposes on the freeway section it is building from the Olgiati Bridge to 12th Street.”

While improving traffic flow and opening the area to redevelopment, the West Side project disrupted the lives of its residents, and claimed many historic structures.  Some of Kirkman’s students lived in the immediate area. 

However, for Kirkman, there was a benefit.  Reservoir Hill, where a Civil War-era water storage structure stood before a small neighborhood was built, would become Hawk Hill with fields for Kirkman’s football and baseball programs.  At the time, Kirkman was the only large high school without a football team, and was hopeful of adding one.

The 1960 Kirkman yearbook included an article titled, “Development of Long Awaited Athletic Facilities Begins for Kirkman.”  The article featured photographs of some of the construction work which was taking place.

The students of Kirkman during the late 1950’s and 1960’s witnessed, or were probably aware of,  news items of the West Side Urban Renewal work.  Among them are the following:

·         July 9, 1949 – Chattanooga News-Free Press (NFP) article “Thrasher Asks Confab on New Bridge in City.”  Hamilton County Judge Wilkes T. Thrasher, who also led the effort to build a bridge over Chickamauga Dam, promoted the idea of a third downtown span to relieve congestion.”

·         March 24, 1954 – Chattanooga Times article “Cedar Street Point Has Final Approval as New Bridge Site.”  Cedar Street, two blocks west of Pine Street up Cameron Hill, was selected over other sites due to the interest in avoiding another low elevation drawbridge like the John Ross Bridge on Market.  At this time, the approaches to the bridge were not finalized, and the idea of a freeway wasn’t mentioned.

·         April 11, 1957 NFP – County historian Zella Armstrong writes another of many articles attempting to convince local leaders not to do extensive grading of the area.  This article concerns the history of Reservoir Hill, where two Confederate batteries had been stationed. 

·         July 31, 1957 NFP – The “Cameron Hill Crusaders,” which included Zella Armstrong and other descendants of Chattanooga pioneers, meet with the project planners to no avail.

·         February 4, 1958 NFP – A front page banner headline reads, “WEST SIDE FREEWAY JOB RUSHED.”  The work is being expedited due to Chattanooga’s rapidly-worsening downtown transportation situation. 

·         October 15, 1958 NFP – Photographs of the structure of the new bridge are included in an article “A Look to the West: Cedar Street Bridge, Approaches Take Shape.”

·         1959 – During this year, the Cedar Street Bridge is renamed for Mayor P.R. “Rudy” Olgiati, and is dedicated.  There were some finishing touches which took place during the year.

·         May 12, 1959  NFP – A photograph by George Moody is captioned, “Here comes the freeway,” and depicts some of the old commercial structures along Ninth Street which will be taken down for a wider approach to one of the freeway interchanges.

·         June 5, 1959 NFP – Photographs of construction of the Fourth Street approach are shown.

·         July 20, 1959 Times – If you’re interested in the former mansions which were demolished for urban renewal, the article “Elegant Ghosts of East Terrace Being Driven Underground by Bulldozers.” is worthwhile reading.  East Terrace was in the vicinity of the current Boynton Terrace.

·         December 20, 1959 Times – A photograph of a dirt slide that occurred at a large cut on Stringers Ridge cut was shown.  Traffic was blocked in one direction until the twenty-five feet of dirt were removed.

·         May 26, 1962 Times – Chancellor Fielding Atchley dismissed a lawsuit by the Cameron Hill Crusaders, who had protested the destruction of the original Boynton Park on the crest of Cameron Hill.

·         November 23, 1962 NFP – “Cameron’s Crest Yields to Jaws of Giant Shovels” – Much of the dirt was transported to fill low areas in the path of the I-124 and I-24 freeways.

Kirkman High School itself became a casualty of a later urban renewal project on Chattanooga’s riverfront.  The IMAX theater and Creative Discovery Museum were built on the site of classroom buildings.  AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, is situated on Hawk Hill.

If you are one of the Kirkman alumni who witnessed the West Side Urban Renewal taking place, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.  I will update this article with some of the feedback.

 

READER FEEDBACK

I attended Kirkman High School for four years from the fall of 1957 through May 1961, and saw the renewal beginning in Chattanooga. As I remember, the Olgiati Bridge came first and then Interstate 124 (now U.S. Highway 27). Zayres and some automobile dealers built in the Golden Gateway. For a while I-124 ended at Ninth Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) before it was connected to I-24.  I remember some beautiful old homes on Cameron Hill, but many of them were dilapidated. From Kirkman High, I could also see the construction of the first building of Provident Life and Accident Insurance Company. Even so, sections around the heart of downtown were in decline, and the riverfront at Market Street was a place to fish.

Kirkman was a great school, and most of the Kirkman graduates succeeded in their careers. It hurts to see your school torn down, but it helped to make way for new development and renewal of downtown Chattanooga from the West Side to the River and beyond.


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