Guild-Hardy Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Guild-Hardy Trail
Length: 5 Miles
Trail activities: Mountain Biking, Walking
Counties: Hamilton
Surfaces: Gravel
State: Tennessee

A Brief History

The Guild-Hardy Trail has one of the more interesting histories of all recreational corridors converted from a former railroad grade. The right-of-way dates back to the 1880s, when the route’s express purpose was to handle passenger traffic seeking to reach the top of popular Lookout Mountain located near Chattanooga. With the line’s opening, known as the Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain Railway, through-service on standard gauge was established for sightseers and vacationers wanting to travel directly from the city to the mountain. Unfortunately, the railroad was not particularly profitable, and after only a brief decade, was discontinued. The right-of-way later hosted electrified streetcars until the 1920s when these, too, were shutdown.

Lookout Mountain, located only a few miles south of downtown Chattanooga, was recognized for its tourism potential as early as post-Civil War. Not only did the area provide unparalleled breathtaking views of the Tennessee River valley, but it also held important historical significance as the location of a Civil War battle known as the “Battle of Lookout Mountain” (sometimes referred to as the “Battle Above the Clouds”). The first means of travel was via the Whiteside Pike; however, this standard wagon path required a journey of several hours, and because it was a toll road, many avoided it. During early 1887, the original Lookout Mountain Incline Railway (then known as Incline #1) began regular service between St. Elmo and the site of Point Hotel, a resort opened in spring 1888. It offered the first convenient mode of transportation to the area, so folks could now travel by streetcar from the city to the mountain.

Along with the incline, visitors could also take a short, narrow-gauge steam railroad, known as the Mount Lookout Railroad, which operated from the hotel to nearby Sunset Rock and Natural Bridge atop the mountain. During the same time period, a new standard-gauge line, known as the Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain Railway (C&LM), was chartered in February 1887. Its purpose was to provide the public a through-trip from downtown Chattanooga to the mountaintop without having to change cars in the process. Construction began that June, and the line was ready for service by January 1889. Departing St. Elmo along the eastern edge of the mountain’s base, the railroad ran north, while passing over Incline #1, then wound along the west side of the mountain. From there it employed a switchback and continued climbing where it again passed over the incline before reaching Sunset Park and terminating just past what became Lookout Inn. The inn was yet another magnificent hotel, completed in 1891. In all, the C&LM’s system covered about 15 miles, featuring grades that averaged 3 percent and reaching as high as 4 percent. Such gradients are too steep for most traditional railroads, although it less of an issue for a tourist operation where locomotives handled only a few cars.

The C&LM acquired the interesting nickname the “Broad Gauge.” Such monikers usually referred to railroads with gauges greater than 4 feet, 8 ½ inches (the industry standard), but in this case it was meant to differentiate the C&LM from the nearby incline and narrow-gauge operation. During November 1895, another incline, known as the Lookout Incline & Lula Lake Railway (later referred to as Incline #2), opened just south of Incline #1 and featured a 1-mile virtually tangent route directly up the mountainside, with grades over 72 percent! At the time, it was the steepest incline in the world and today is the only railroad system on Lookout Mountain still in service.

While the C&LM saw periods of regular and steady use, with demand at times strong, it lost money every year. In July 1899, Incline #1 and its accompanying narrow-gauge railroad ended operations, followed by the C&LM in April 1900. After more than a decade of dormancy, the old C&LM right-of-way was acquired by the Chattanooga Railway & Light Company, which operated several miles of local streetcar lines in Chattanooga. It relayed rails on the old grade and initiated service on what became known as the Surface Line in 1913. The trolley was also electrified with catenary poles strung along the tracks all the way up the mountain. Unfortunately, the extension had difficulty turning a profit and intended to abandon operations to Lookout Mountain by 1916. Local support kept it running until 1920, when regular service was finally discontinued. Interestingly, trolleys continued running atop the mountain until they were shut down in 1928.

Railroad attractions in Tennessee include: the Casey Jones Railroad Museum and Chattanooga & St. Louis Depot & Railroad Museum in Jackson; Chattanooga Choo Choo, inside Southern Railway’s former Terminal Station; Cookeville Depot Museum housed inside the town’s former Tennessee Central depot; Cowan Railroad Museum in Cowan; Dollywood Express Train in the popular park; Little River Railroad in Townsend; Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, Tennessee Central Railway Museum, and Lynnville Depot Museum at the town’s restored Louisville & Nashville depot, Nashville; Secret City Scenic Excursion Train/Southern Appalachia Railway Museum in Oakridge; Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga; and the Three Rivers Rambler excursion based in Knoxville.

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