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In 1803, it was a well-used Cherokee trail. Sixty years later, it was a major supply line for Union forces. Now, it is a road rediscovered. Archaeologist Lawrence Alexander stood knee-deep in a trench, spade in hand, gesturing to a thin layer of dark soil on Moccasin Bend.
"You can't see the road anymore, but you can hear it," Alexander said as he lightly scraped his spade over the 2-foot-tall cross-section of soil. There was only a smooth sound of soft clay until he hit the thin layer of 150-year-old gravel.
"That's it, you hear it?" Alexander asked, scraping his trowel over the coarse rock.
This 40-foot-wide gravel bypass was a key to allowing Union forces to hold the city after being defeated at the Battle of Chickamauga, according to James Ogden, historian at Chicka-mauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
"In the predawn hours of Oct. 27, 1863, about 8,000 union soldiers were lined up standing here waiting to cross the pontoon bridge [at Browns Ferry]," Ogden said.
The dig has uncovered mule shoes, a harness buckle and minie balls left by camping Union soldiers. It has also unearthed an older plank road beneath the gravel. Archaeologists can't say exactly how old the plank road was, or who built it.
But 25 years before Union engineers improved the road, another group used it -- going in the opposite direction. Cherokee and Creek Native Americans used this westward path to leave North Georgia and Chattanooga, the trek that became known as the Trail of Tears.
The Friends of Moccasin Bend had been looking for the road since 2003 after acquiring the land it sits on, a 98-acre piece of the National Park Service's Moccasin Bend National Archeological District -- which was once part of the 640-acre John Brown Cherokee Reservation.
But the real hunt began two years ago, when the group sought to build a preservation trail commemorating the two important events in which the trail played a role -- the Civil War and the Trail of Tears.
The trail is scheduled to open Oct. 26 for the 175th anniversary of the Trail of Tears and the 150th for the Civil War, said Shelley Andrews, executive director of the Friends of Moccasin Bend.
"The purpose of putting in this trail," said Andrews, "is so people can literally walk in the steps of history."
The property is now overgrown, and drivers on Pineville Road pass it every day and likely have no idea a road ever existed there.
But the road that connected Browns Ferry to the old Federal Road beyond Lookout Mountain was a big deal in pre-1900 Chattanooga.
The road was on the "cracker line," an important supply line to Union troops late in 1863. The route supplied about 30,000 Union soldiers in Chattanooga for at least the month of September 1863, running 500 six-mule wagons a day, Ogden said.
Without the road to the ferry, Ogden said Union soldiers -- who were already eating shoe leather at the time -- would likely have starved or been driven out of the city by Confederates. Instead, they fortified and drove Confederate troops off of Lookout Mountain.
The rest is history, Ogden said.
The main federal road to which the Moccasin Bend road connects starts near the Chattahoochee River, near Athens, Ga., and runs northwest to Ringgold, over the top of Lookout Mountain and on to Nashville.
The land of Moccasin Bend wasn't ideal for road building, Ogden said. It was mostly swampy lowlands sandwiched between a bend in the Tennessee River that was prone to flooding. But it was important, Ogden said, because it held one of the few clear pathways west of Chattanooga.
Despite being used by many people of the day, the road was abandoned by the 1900s. Railroad technology improved, and the road's utility was diminished. Ultimately it was covered with run-off dirt, plowed over and obscured by farm land.
Ogden said teams used everything from light detecting and ranging devices, ground penetrating radar and aerial photography to locate the road, but old maps proved most useful.
Maps and historic geographic data are incredibly accurate for their age, he said, because "150 years ago, our country decided to fight itself."
As a result, Ogden and others were able to locate the old federal bypass road by cross-referencing survey-grade maps from Civil War times with modern technology.
"Because [of wartime mapping] we can geo-reference this road to a high degree of accuracy," Ogden said.
It also helps that many of the property lines have not changed much in 150 years, he said.
"Despite all of this [development], we are finding 200-plus-year-old fences. We're finding property lines still in use today," Ogden said.
It's been a lot of work, but Ogden said preserving the history of the forgotten road will be worth it for generations to come.
"It's an important road in Cherokee history, in United States history and Civil War history," said Ogden.
"By developing this trail, by doing the research, it will allow us to provide the research to educate about the importance of this corridor or passageway."
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@times freepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.
Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...