From the founder of Picnooga, this documentary will dig deep into the true stories of Underground Chattanooga, revealing the facts behind a city’s attempt to bury its commercial first floors in the 1880s to avoid flooding and create higher ground.
Whether you know a little bit or a lot about Chattanooga’s past, the story of Underground Chattanooga probably has piqued your imagination. And, if you have not heard about Underground Chattanooga, you’ll most likely want to know more after a brief introduction.
In the late 1970s, Dr. Jeffrey L. Brown, a professor of archaeology at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, postulated a theory that sometime during the last few decades of the 1800s, a consensus of local influencers, business owners, and citizens united to hatch a large scale effort to entomb the first stories of up to forty blocks of valuable real estate in Chattanooga’s downtown commercial district. Their solution would help minimize future physical and economic damage from persistent flooding of the Tennessee River and create a higher ground. As a result of their grand and laborious undertaking, original first floors of buildings downtown would become basements, and more than one-hundred years later, these forgotten spaces would have become frozen time capsules beneath the city streets.
Dr. Jeff Brown passed away in 1980 without completely realizing a formal archaeological survey or investigation of his Underground concept. Additionally, none of his research remains other than a few photostatic copies of student coursework.
For nearly four decades, Brown’s observations have been left to amateur historians and Chattanoogans to speculate about, with only small clues available to try and piece together the truth from fiction.
We hit over $2,500 raised this week.
Research into the Underground continues with a look back at some of the articles written over the past forty years. This includes Dr. Brown’s original findings, a PBS documentary, and more recent articles from the past twenty years. See all of the articles here.
(Lovemans’ basement in 2016)
Today we released a sneak preview of our documentary poster art. The ‘Digging Deep’ logo and typography will follow in the weeks to come.
There is no historical paper trail that definitively outlines a mass effort to bury an entire story-high level of the city overnight and very little evidence about any significant work that was piecemealed over time. The Hamilton County Courthouse fire in 1910 destroyed many of the earliest area records and is often blamed for the lack of official documentation. Less than a handful of contemporary newspaper accounts even mention any attempt to raise the grade of city streets, and oral history has either been compromised by the influence of modern speculative information or degraded over several generations of storytelling. Adding to the lack of a reliable evidence trail, entire blocks of Chattanooga’s 19th-century commercial structures have been demolished and basements filled, leaving very little behind to examine.
Over the past two decades, Underground Chattanooga has been covered by many local and national media outlets and other independent sources, like myself. But even with the mini documents, news stories, and articles, most of the information is based on previously established conjecture and opinion, only perpetuating the overall concept as an absolute and indisputable fact.
I started a long-winded follow-up piece this year to my original Underground article from 2015, where I attempted to put Underground Chattanooga in a less sensationalized perspective by debunking some suspect locations using historical photography and postulating my own conclusions. Instead, I decided to take my nearly five years of accumulated research and make a new documentary for a much greater historical impact. This would partly include investigating and exploring new spaces and properly documenting, through interviews, the oral history of Underground Chattanooga from older residents with testimony that predate the 1970s’ Brown concept. Just over the last two years, I’ve been gathering new information and historical photographic discoveries to provide a more accurate timeline of when streets were graded, and by what methods. Many of the other pieces are out there; they just need to be connected.
Unlike material produced previously, there will be a far deeper exploration using the latest data and historical assets. The documentary will reach conclusions based on facts, but will also acknowledge alternative theories and scenarios. Finally, it will provide a future path to get closer to the truth and not keep perpetuating an incomplete or false narrative. For instance, sometime in the future, a proper archaeological survey needs to be initiated.
The purpose of the documentary is not to disprove or destroy the Underground story, but to focus in on the facts and provide a more accurate narrative. The subject will always be fluid as long as Chattanoogans remain engaged and interested in the subject, and even if an Underground story never happened, the legend will remain a huge part of Chattanooga’s history.
What’s most exciting to me about producing this documentary, and a reason why I’m taking this on now, is the people who I’ve recently connected with and their independent research on the subject with a perspective and expertise beyond my own. So this documentary will allow others to collaborate and contribute their ideas of observations, so it’s not just one voice or opinion. I expect what’s on the table now is only partially what will be in the completed piece.
As a supporter of this project, you’ll be a witness to our work throughout the process through an exclusively online closed community. You’ll have inside access to clips as they are produced, as well as information that will find its way into the documentary. You’ll also have a direct line to the filmmakers and local historians to ask questions and discuss topics related to the Underground.
The majority of the budget is the equipment needed for the filmmaking. Obviously, we want to provide a quality production, but within a minimal budget. Other expenses are scoring, narration, editing, and other expenditures related to the website and marketing when the film is released. Thankfully, we have some assets in place like editing hardware and software.
We’ll be using the Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema Camera 6K and a set of Zeiss lenses for a professional cinematic look.
Any purchased filmmaking equipment will be made available to other local documentary makers for projects focusing on local history as schedule permits during, after or , between filming. There will be a request area of this website added when that opportunity arrives.
The current (realistic) target running time for this documentary will be between 20 and 35 minutes with a lot of bonus content and clips available in the online release. (Idealistically) we’d like to shoot for a feature-length film, which would be a minimum of 70 minutes.
Its planned live audience debut will be at the Chattanooga Film Festival in 2021, but all supporters will get an online preview before that time.
It will take a little over a year to complete the outline, write, execute the additional research, film, and edit this documentary. But we do plan to update supporters regularly and offer exclusive content throughout our journey.
Any contribution over $25 will have access to a password-protected supporter’s web site. This will provide special content and updates throughout the filmmaking process. It’ll also include a discussion forum to connect with other supporters and local historians. All supporters will have preview access to the completed documentary before its live debut at the 2021 Chattanooga Film Festival. The supporter website will be available once we meet our crowdfunding goal.
Co-Producer level contributions start at $500. Executive Producer levels start at $1,500 and each producer levels will be given billing in the film, on posters, and other promotional material. They also receive all other perks of supporters, including a special pre-preview of the completed documentary.
Local companies, foundations, and organizations are also encouraged to sponsor the documentary. Contact me for more information.
Any contribution over $250 will be sent a Digging Deep “Coming Soon” version of the documentary poster. The Executive Producer level will be sent the “Coming Soon” poster and a copy of the final version before its debut.
Thank you postcards of the documentary poster cover art will be sent to all contributors at any level at the end of the crowdfunding period.
-David Moon, Picnooga