Monday, January 25, 2016

Chattanooga Choo Choo!

With dozens of hotels in and around Chattanooga we found ourselves considering two main options: one would put us close to Lookout Mountain and cut travel time, the other was downtown allowing us to walk to several riverfront attractions. With driving time from downtown to Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls and Park Point only 15 minutes it didn’t seem to make sense to stay outside the city, and the riverfront options seemed a little pricey… So it came about that we decided on a third option, ideal lodgings for our family – The Historic Chattanooga Choo Choo!

Early Chattanooga was a river and rail town, the first train of Western & Atlantic Railroad arriving in 1849. Southern Railway built a Terminal Station in 1908, the depot serving nearly 50 passenger trains a day in a couple of years. Over the years dignitaries such as Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt traveled through the station, but with the advent of other, faster modes of transportation, train traffic slowed to a near halt in the 1960s.

After 60 years of operation, the terminal was closed to the public when the last train stopped on August 11, 1970. Seemingly destined for the same fate as Union Station in the center of town (which was demolished in 1973), the historic building was granted a reprieve. A group of local businessmen invested $4 million dollars to save the building and turn it into a vacation complex, laying the groundwork for the attraction it has become today and ensuring its place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Original tile on the way to the restrooms? Probably!

Architect Don Barber’s creation was a combination of his Beaux Arts Institute prize winning design (1900) and the interior of National Park Bank in NYC. The centerpiece of the station was a dome over the concourse, built of steel and concrete, and buttressed by giant brick arches. Upon its conversion to a hotel the central terminal room was converted into a huge dining hall, the adjacent baggage room becoming a restaurant. A trolley traveled the tracks behind the station, stores opened along formal gardens in the rail concourse, and authentic sleeper cars were converted into furnished sleeping quarters.

...not even midnight and he's hanging from the chandeliers...

The name of the hotel was inspired by a song popularized by Glen Miller in the late 1940s. The first “Choo Choo” train was Cincinnati Southern Railroad’s small wood burning steam locomotive, dubbed the Chattanooga Choo Choo by a newspaper reporter. 

The refurbished engine of the same name on display today is the same kind of wood-burner, and was last used by the Smoky Mountain Railroad in the 1940s.

The Choo Choo complex once again changed hands in 1989, and currently is in the midst of another $8 million renovation. The dome is now a ornate lobby, Christmas decorations still lighting up the hall on our visit. It is impossible to wander through that grand space and not feel the ghosts of past travelers hurrying through on journeys of yesteryear.

Adjacent to the lobby is the Gardens Restaurant where we ate breakfast one morning. Greenhouse-type panels enclose the space during the winter, but we’ll have to return to see if it’s an open-air eatery during the warm months. The dreary morning offered little in terms of sunlight, and so it was happened we didn’t linger long in the formal gardens that day either. Luckily old station platform shelters line the walkways from the hotel rooms to the old station, allowing us dry passage in the rain. 

The following day was ideal for exploration; a formal, Victorian-style garden covers a portion of the old rail lines complete with rose gardens, gazebos, a life-size chess and checkers set and watergardens, home to brightly colored goldfish and water plants of all shapes and sizes.

Surrounding the formal gardens are the sleepercars, Pullman train car “rooms” featuring a queen bed and bathroom. We might go this route on our next visit, as I can imagine the kids would be thrilled to sleep in a train…

Not all the train cars parked on site are sleepers; some are dining cars, the Silver Diner Pizza Car dishing up pizza made fresh to order. From what I gather there will be more on-site dining choices once renovations are complete; however we found more than enough options within easy walking distance during our stay to cover all three meals. My only regret is not having the opportunity to enjoy a drink in the Victorian Lounge, intact with original antique Chattanooga bar and chandeliers.

At the far end of the formal gardens is “Hotel 1”, the MacArthur Building, which is named for the last steam-powered freight train to arrive in Chattanooga – it houses hotel rooms and the indoor swimming pool. Although the pool hall renovations have not yet been completed, the pool is open for use and worth bringing your swimming suit for. With a two-story ceiling reminding me of the zeppelin hangars that cover Rīga’s Central Market, I imagined the water would be rather frigid. Instead the enormous pool was heated to a perfect winter temperature, offering the boys a few hours swim time interrupted by bedtime instead of blue lips. I can only imagine what it would look like with the waterfall running down the cliff, especially from the relaxing vantage point of one of the lounge chairs instead of in the water, drink in hand not squirming toddler…

As opposed to a trolley running to take guests from end to end there were golf carts, and although we didn’t take advantage of this amenity I imagine that they could come in handy, especially to get to “Hotel 2” (the Empress Building, “a tribute to the Empress of Blues and Chattanooga-native, Bessie Smith”) and “Building 3.” More hotel rooms, two outdoor pools, hot tub, laundry & fitness and a pet walk area are over at this far end, separated from the terminal by sleeping cars and the completely unfinished space that eventually will have a convention hall. We ran out of time to explore these sections, only ducking into the Depot gift shop and missing the model railroad museum and town hall theatre. On the opposite end of the complex is public parking, and we also didn’t make it over that way – the map shows galleries, an imperial ballroom, a lecture hall and the Centennial Theatre. The parking structure would be a great place to park for those not staying at the hotel, for its proximity to the Station and as a stop for the Chattanooga free shuttle.

The Chattanooga Choo Choo neighborhood is currently in the upswing. With a seemingly abandoned art deco building across the street, our first impression (especially arriving after dark) wasn’t the most positive. However, with the light of day (and after walking to several nearby eateries) our opinion was completely reversed. Only a short distance from downtown, the nearby restaurants are attracting a young and hip clientele. And with the rebirth of Chattanooga as “Gig City” with its (ultra) high-speed internet service, the city will just keep on growing. As an attraction/lodgings/historic landmark all rolled into one the Chattanooga Choo Choo has potential, but whether they will be able to overcome negative pre-renovation reviews and embrace the image of the new Chattanooga, that remains to be seen. I for one sincerely hope the reincarnation of the Choo Choo is successful, and wish the owners luck with the work ahead.

* Check for discounted rates from those listed on the Chattanooga Choo Choo website – I feel like we got an excellent deal!


  1. This place looks amazing!!! Can only imagine the kids loved it! And looks like dad did, too....

    1. I think the lion looks like he's having more fun than dad...?

    2. I really didn't know what to think as some of the reviews weren't so great, and then we arrived in the dark to near-empty streets. After the fun we had, I'm surprised I had never heard of it before - staying in an old train station, coolest thing!


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