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No. 409:
The Lookout Mountain Incline

Today, harmony in the wake of an old battle. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A cable railway takes us off the mountain in a slow 38-degree plunge. We fall into a breathtaking view of eastern Tennessee. I drink in the flowering dogwood and forget all the people who've died in the forests around us.

I've been to the top of Lookout Mountain, just south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. It's a strange and ancient place. The explorer De Soto passed by it 450 years ago. We fought the last battle of the American Revolution there in 1782, against Chickamauga Indians sympathetic to the British.

This is where the tide of the Civil War finally turned against the South. Our armies converged there on a foggy November day in 1863. They swirled through the clouds, sniping among rocks and trees. In the end, far more were listed missing than dead. Do some bleached bones still hide in the vast forest? Or did many just grow sick of the slaughter and go home?

After the war, this great mountain drew the wealthy of Chattanooga to the top. A road was hacked to the summit. Resort hotels and colleges sprang up. Doctors claimed that the air made you immune to consumption. And during the 1880s several rail systems were built to take people up the mountain.

I'm riding the only rails that survive. It's a pencil-straight track from the highway below to the crest above. Two cars hang at each end of a mile-long cable. As one falls, it helps pull the other up. The design is simplicity itself. This is the second of two inclined rail systems that were built. It'll be a hundred years old in 1995.

The design arrests my eye. It has clearly survived because it's simple and it fits its purpose so well. The car rides at such a steep angle that its seats are arranged like balcony seats at the opera. Each one is a stair-step higher than the one below it. You ride with your back to the mountain, gazing out at the horizon through glass windows in the roof.

Old photos in the museum above show General Grant and Teddy Roosevelt striking heroic poses on rocks that hang into empty space. Tired soldiers with caps of gray or blue crumple against trees with rifles ready. You run your eyes over them and then re-enter the spring air. At other battlefields, the ghosts speak to you. But not here! These ghosts are at peace.

The mad chaos of the Civil War has been exorcised. Now I ride down the mountain in this elegant, elementary machine. It celebrates harmony. It celebrates the beauty of the place. And that is what survives war on Lookout Mountain today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Wilson, J., Scenic Historic Lookout Mountain. 1977. (148 pages. No publisher listed. Obtained through the National Parks Service in Chattanooga.)


Image courtesy of ASME

Vintage photo of the original Lookout Mountain incline


Image courtesy of ASME

Present-day view down the mountain from that tramway car


Image courtesy of ASME

The present-day tramway at its lower station


Stereopticon image courtesy of Margaret Culbertson

And, at last, the view from on top