We often look for the remaining physical evidence to justify the premise of Underground Chattanooga. Other articles, news stories, and short documentaries spent the bulk of their investigations trying to decode what’s left today. This focus has lead to a romanticized version of the event, and it’s easy to be charmed by the overall premise and let your imagination go wild.
As an amateur local historian, looking mostly to the past to decode the Underground event has been at the center of my research. Part of that is trying to gather a reasonable justification and evidence of why basements downtown might feature openings and doorways that face street elevations. The answer would either qualify an area affected by the Underground, disqualify it, or presents additional questions.
In a large portion of Downtown Chattanooga, the sidewalks are vaulted. Meaning, there are story-high spaces that extend under the sidewalk. Beyond that is a stone retaining wall to keep fill from pouring in. Traditionally, these voids were used for utilities, coal, storage, and extended workspaces. Because much of the 19th-century was without electricity so underground spaces needed to harness natural light to make them practical and usable real estate. Vault or sidewalk lights/prisms were specifically designed to intensify and redirect daylight and made those dark spaces serviceable.
After the Civil War, the city, naturally, began to grow its infrastructure. The traffic from the railroad made commercial real estate a premium commodity and basements added additional space. In photos from the early 20th-century, you can clearly see the implementation of vault lights embedded in sidewalks in 19th-century buildings. For them to work, a building’s foundation would need to have large cutouts or arches to let in the light that faced their street elevations. In buildings like Lovemans’ and Miller Bros. Department Stores, this feature is still evident.
Does this mean the use of vault lights disproves Underground Chattanooga? No. But it does explain the intentional large openings and arches that still exist in many buildings downtown.
See the photos below and contribute to ‘Digging Deep’, a documentary about Underground Chattanooga. Find out more details at https://diggingdoc.com/. When it’s all done, you’ll be surprised what you don’t know about Underground Chattanooga.
Additional illustrations and a photo show how vault lights worked and different types.
Contribute to the Digging Deep documentary.