Stewards of Lookout Mountain: Preserving a Tennessee Legacy

Posted 12/08/14 by Katie Harris in America's Trails, Success Stories

Ruby Falls | Photo by Kelly Winstrom

A unique partnership is being forged on a Tennessee mountain, both above and below ground. The Lookout Mountain Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust based just outside of Chattanooga, and Ruby Falls, a commercial business, are teaming up to celebrate and preserve the natural area they both call home.

Why are these two groups working together? The answer is simple. They share Lookout Mountain and want to ensure their home is taken care of in a responsible manner. And a major part of the equation: the Guild Hardy Trail, a rail-trail that winds its way up the mountain, taking the place of a once-functioning rail corridor built by the Lookout Mountain Railway Company.

The old railroad is in fact the instigator for many events that have unfolded on Lookout Mountain. Built in 1889, it was originally intended as a way to transport guests to the summit’s two hotels. In addition to being carved into the mountain’s flanks, however, construction also resulted in the sealing off of the natural entrance to the caverns below.

Ruby Falls | Photo by Helen Wells

A few Chattanooga investors—who did not wish to watch the caves disappear with one simple decision by the railroad—banded together to purchase a large segment of Lookout Mountain. In 1928, as they began to drill an elevator shaft to access the caves from a different perspective, they discovered the true gem: an underground waterfall, cascading 145 feet down, contained fully within the heart of the mountain itself. Investor Leo Lambert—who had explored the waterfall for 17 hours on that day of discovery—promptly named it after his wife, Ruby, and decided that it would be a centerpiece of Lookout Mountain’s commercial undertakings.

Although Ruby Falls has changed hands a few times, it is up and running today. The lasting power of the railroad was considerably weaker, and the rail company eventually stopped service along the line. Decades later, the rail corridor got a makeover as a multi-use trail, and now the Guild Hardy Trail is used by walkers, cyclists and nature enthusiasts wanting to soak in the natural wonders above ground.

The partnership between Ruby Falls and Lookout Mountain Conservancy is a symbiotic relationship that serves both groups, and their camaraderie is worth noting. In fact, the trail runs right through the parking lot of Ruby Falls, but instead of this being a source of conflict, both groups see it as an advantage. “We bring each other users,” says Robyn Carlton, president of Lookout Mountain Conservancy. “We help each other, and we give each other recognition,” she explains.

The preservation of Lookout Mountain is high on the list of priorities for Hugh Morrow, president of Ruby Falls. Working with the conservancy allows the business to ensure that the surrounding landscape stays as intact as possible.

Most of the neighboring land is federally owned or is owned by the land trust. Morrow says that while some folks see that as a limiting factor—it means that further expansion is nearly impossible—he sees it as an asset. “Conserving the land on Lookout Mountain allows us to maintain the natural feel around Ruby Falls,” explains Morrow. “It’s a natural feature, and it’s only fitting that it’s in a natural setting.”

The friendly rapport between the two groups was born from their mutual interest in preserving the resources on Lookout Mountain, and the relationship is stronger than ever. “Ruby Falls has been a fabulous partner,” says Carlton. “They are focusing on their role as a natural resource and investing in conservation and preservation,” she says. And because those values line up so closely with the work being done by the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, the two groups are a natural fit.

For Morrow, the partnership is more than just a business tactic. Conservation and preservation are intrinsically tied to being good stewards and good neighbors. “We must honor it and take care of it,” he says. “The mountain has value, not just on the surface but [in] depth as well. We want to be good neighbors to the trail, and to do that, we know that we must preserve the mountain the best we can.”

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