Saturday, April 19, 2014 · 7:06 p.m.

The changing face of Aetna Mountain

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The view of Aetna Mountain from Cummings Cove. (Photo: Staff)

The lush, green mountainsides and peaks that welcome visitors to Chattanooga as they cross Nickajack Lake while heading south on I-24 are actually part of one landform: Raccoon Mountain, a U-shaped mountain that encompasses Elder, Raccoon and Aetna mountains. Unknowingly, many Chattanoogans often use the three mountain names interchangeably.

If the beginning of wisdom is learning to call a thing by its right name, as the Chinese proverb says, consider this lay of the land: the northeastern section of Raccoon Mountain is Elder Mountain, so named for George Elder who purchased 4,500 acres in 1921; the middle section is the “official” Raccoon Mountain, purchased in 1970 by the Tennessee Valley Authority in for its Pumped-Storage Plant; and the western end is Aetna Mountain—one of the last undeveloped mountains in the Chattanooga area.

Although Aetna Mountain’s 10,000 acres, which are divided between Hamilton and Marion counties, have remained undeveloped through the years, the mountain is not devoid of human history and impact. Too, Aetna Mountain is facing a new future that includes development of a new community and increased outdoor recreational opportunities.

In light of the future, it seems important to consider the mountain’s past.

History on Aetna Mountain
Aetna Mountain and the surrounding landscape were part of the Cherokee Nation until the Cherokee removal in 1838. According to historians, the mountain protected the home of Dragging Canoe, a Cherokee warrior and leader of the Chickamaugas.

Dragging Canoe and his followers established five towns along the Tennessee River, but his headquarters was located at Running Water, which was located at the base of Aetna Mountain along Running Water Creek. Dragging Canoe died in 1792 and was buried at Running Water (today, the community of Whiteside) by the historic Haletown Bridge. In fact, his grave is now under the waters of Nickajack Lake.

Portions of Raccoon Mountain played an important role in the Civil War as well. At one point, a Confederate cavalry brigade was posted on Raccoon Mountain, and the mountain served a role during the Battle of Chickamauga and the Siege of Chattanooga. Ultimately, Union soldiers were able to capture Brown’s Ferry at the eastern base of Raccoon Mountain, and they ran their supply line back through Raccoon Mountain via Cummings Gap to Kelley’s Ferry and Bridgeport, Ala.

Students from the old school of Aetna Mountain in 1898-1899. (Photo: "Marion County, Tennessee: History and Keepsake Memories," Nonie Hlobil Webb)

In 1839, land grants from the state of Tennessee passed ownership of parts of Raccoon Mountain to James A. Whiteside and F.W. Lea. Whiteside joined with Robert Craven to form the East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Company in 1852. Aetna Mountain was found to contain a rich vein of coal, and the Aetna Coal Company was formed and began operations there in 1855.

Coal mining on Aetna Mountain grew. The coal company built a railroad across the mountain, and inclines were built to haul coal to the bottom of the mountain. Houses were built on and around the mountain, and the Aetna Mountain/Whiteside Mountain School was established. A cemetery on the Marion County section of Aetna Mountain reveals the lives that were led on or near the mountain in the mid-1800s.

However, in time, coal production on Aetna Mountain ceased, and life there retreated—until recently.

The changing face of Aetna Mountain
Today, Black Creek Mountain Development Group has plans to develop approximately 1,200 acres on top of Aetna Mountain, as well as 190 acres on the mountainside above the current Cummings Cove development.

Black Creek expects to build more than 1,500 new residential units and have more than $500 million of new investment in retail and commercial space, homes, infrastructure and amenities, according to the group headed by Doug Stein of Stein Construction.

Black Creek Mountain Development sketch. (Artist's rendering: Contributed)

The initial phase will include about 60 homes, and the development will feature amenities such as a dog park, pools, sports fields, workout facilities, a playground and walking trails. Crews are already at work on the commercial development portion, called The Village, which will have a general store, post office, retail areas and amphitheater. Land has also been set aside for a school.

Currently, there are two primary access roads to the top of Aetna Mountain: one to the west near Haletown and one to the east near the Tennessee Highway Patrol and Black Creek Subdivision. Chattanooga City Council members recently approved tax increment financing status for the development group to create a 1.5-mile paved public road that will wind up Aetna Mountain.

Stein is clear about the group’s intentions to maintain sustainable design efforts on Aetna Mountain. For instance, the group is working with the city of Chattanooga to develop roadside bioswales to mitigate stormwater runoff. The group has also set parameters to protect the Aetna Mountain views from the valley.

“We have analyzed the slopes in every way so the view from the valley will be protected from the maximum extent possible,” Stein said. “Each lot has been mapped out and will be tightly controlled.”

Stein is adamant that outdoor recreation will remain an important aspect of life on Aetna Mountain.

In 2006, a 1,200-acre property on top of Aetna Mountain adjacent to the Black Creek Development was purchased from the group with Forestry Legacy Program funds. Dubbed the Cummings Cove Wildlife Management Area, the land was placed under the control of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

The development group also has an agreement in place to donate an additional 1,200 acres to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust and Trust for Public Lands by 2018.

To learn more about Black Creek Mountain Development Group, visit www.blackcreekmtn.com.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. She enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

Children explore historic Running Water Creek at the base of Aetna Mountain along Whiteside Road in Marion County, Tenn. (Photo: Staff)
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