Rock City Gardens is one of my favorite tourist attractions in the world. In fact, I had visited Rock City about five times in the last two years before our Memorial Day weekend visit; as you can imagine, I'm pretty familiar with the place. That's why—well, that's one of the reasons why—it was so nice to have Annie with me, because she had never been there.
Besides being one of my favorites, Rock City is also one of the nation's oldest tourist attractions. Rock City Gardens as it exists today was first opened to the public many years before I was born—in fact, many years before my parents were born—in May of 1932 by Garnet and Frieda Carter. (Garnet, a Chattanooga businessman and developer, had already made an indelible mark on the roadside attraction industry over half a decade earlier as the inventor of minature golf.) The area atop Lookout Mountain that he and his wife opened as an attraction in 1932 had been called Rock City since the 1800s, but during those less civilized years you could get in for free, there were no plaster gnomes, and “Fat Man's Squeeze“ had not been properly labeled as such.
Garnet and Frieda corrected this slight oversight of nature. They laid out pine needle pathways through the rocky formations, provided signs for “Eye of the Needle,” “Lover's Leap,” “Mushroom Rock,” and the rest, situated genuine German statues of gnomes variously along the path, and began charging admission. Tourists such as myself obliged them, and the Rock City of today is virtually the same as it was 68 years ago. The Fairyland Caverns, my favorite part of Rock City when I was a kid, the part I thought was Rock City, were added in 1947, Mother Goose Village seventeen years later, and Rock City Gardens was complete.
2:00 PM: The Southern Belle Riverboat Lunch Cruise
After our fun-filled two hours in Rock City, we headed down (or is it up?) to the Tennessee River to the Chattanooga Riverboat Co. for a lunch cruise on the Southern Belle. We got there a good half-hour before boarding began, which gave us ample opportunity to browse through the gift shop and take a brief walk down the pier. I was very happy to discover that the gift shop stocks Willy Wonka's Chewy Gobstoppers, which I prefer to the generally more readily-available Everlasting Gobstoppers (plus, of course, the chewy kind don't turn you into a giant blueberry so that the Oompa-Loompas have to roll you down to the de-juicing room, but that, as Kipling would say, is another story).
We boarded the Southern Belle at around 1:30, found a table by a window, and immediately began making our sandwiches at the "'Build-Your-Own-Sandwich' Buffet with a delicious assortment of meats, cheeses, breads, and condiments," as their brochure describes it. "A long table with bread, bologna, and mayonnaise" might be a better description, but it in fairness I must admit that it did include turkey, ham, various kinds of cheese, and mustard. We had pretty much finished our sandwiches before the boat left the dock, so it wasn't truly a "lunch cruise," in so much as we weren't cruising during lunch, but it was close enough for me. Neither Annie or I had ever been on a boat like that, so it was especially neat.
After we finished eating we moved up to the top of the boat, where, as you can imagine, one could get the best view. For the next hour and a half the riverboat meandered down (or up?) the river, with the captain providing a narrative of the sights we saw, the history of the area, and his own experience piloting boats down the river; his rambling dialogue combined the informative, humorous, and annoying in a way that rivaled my own travelogues. A couple of times as we sat in our white plastic chairs along the railing, the sun warming the backs of our necks and the breeze playing with our hair, Annie drifted off to sleep. The sun was especially searing that afternoon and I got some major sunburn on my arms and a little on the back of my neck while we were sitting on the top level of the boat, but it was worth it.
After we were done with the riverboat cruise and got our land legs back, we went to the outlet stores for a while, where I decided against a shirt that I have since wished I'd bought, then we went to a really cool used bookstore that's in Chattanooga, McKay's used books, where we bought a near-complete set of Childcraft Encylopedias and at least a dozen other books. We finally left for home around 8:00. We stopped for dinner at an Applebee's in Dalton, and got back to my house around 10:30.
For the historical background on Rock City, and for the many hours of pleasure it has given me, I am indebted to Tim Hollis's book Dixie Before Disney: 100 Years of Roadside Fun. If you grew up in the south in the 1970s as I did and have fond memories of family road trips to places like Rock City, Gatlinburg, Panama City Beach, Marineland, and Six Flags Over Georgia, you should get this book. It's really good.
(I originally published this travelogue on my AOL Web site on the dates shown above, and transferred it to our family blog in late October of 2017.)
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