John W. Coniglio / feature writing

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John W. Coniglio is the author of Steam in the Valley, a 160 page history of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, and has other writing examples available upon request. Please email to set up a consultation to discuss your project.


The Wandering Depot

By John W. Coniglio, Chattanooga Times staff photographer

For the second time in a decade, Ooltewah's train station has hit the road. The once busy depot was closed in the late 1970s and moved down the tracks to a site on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, where a historical group hoped to convert it into a museum. The project failed to attract enough support and the building, sandwiched between a main rail line and busy highway, deteriorated.

The historical group’s hopes were renewed Friday when a tractor and two bulIdozers nudged the old building into the street to begin the three-mile journey to Ooltewah High School, where a tract of land had been set aside for its relocation.

Riding a specially built steel trailer, the 34-foot-wide, 35-ton train station creaked and groaned as it inched away from the railroad tracks. On the way to the new site the wandering depot was pulled and pushed through pastures, a 20-foot-wide, two-foot-deep creek, and across the railroad line it had served for decades. The trailer was damaged while crossing the creek, but repairs were made Saturday evening. Early Sunday morning, the ghostly structure slipped across Interstate 75 as state police stopped a few surprised motorists. At 11:20 a.m. Sunday, a blast from the tractor's air horn signaled the end of the journey at Ooltewah High School.

Workers from Bill Brown Trucking Co. and Rogers Construction Co., Ooltewah area students, and other volunteers prepared the route and moved the building, which is to be restored and used as a James County museum. The moving and restorationof the depot, and establishment of the museum is a Tennessee Homecoming project of the Ooltewah community.

Recycling for Santa

By John W. Coniglio, Chattanooga Times staff photographer

Firefighter Rick Phillips is a “jolly ole soul” whose efforts turned a downtown fire hall into Santa Claus’ workshop. He then, with help, turned a pile of discarded bicycles into a sleigh—make that a ladder truck—full of “new” wheels for youngsters facing a bleak Christmas.

In October, Phillips and fellow firefighters on the green shift at Chattanooga Fire Hall No. 1 on West M.L. King Boulevard were lamenting the unused things, like outgrown bicycles, they had around their homes. Phillips suggested they recycle the bikes as Christmas gifts for needy children.
According to Phillips it was a chance to clean some outgrown items from the garage and help Santa Claus with five or six bikes. Fellow firefighters Jay Rorex and Greg Jackson bought the idea, and their superiors gave the project an unofficial blessing.

Soon bicycles, tricycles, parts, and donations poured in. Phillips got permission to store the donated items under the horse shed behind the fire station. Sprockets, wheels, and handlebars spilled into the parking lot and began to stack up on the hill behind the shed. Between alarms, usually five or more per day during the holiday season, and training and maintenance work sessions, Phillips and his wrenching crew started producing usable bikes from the rusty rejects. Rorex painted some of the bikes’ frames in a speckled pattern. Other green shift members spent hours sanding, polishing, washing, and reassembling the renovated parts into shiny Christmas gifts. As the pile under the shed began to go down, the firefighters’ dayroom began to fill up with the two- and three-wheelers.
Local agencies helped to match completed cycles with recipients so that each bike or trike is appropriate for the child who will receive it. Phillips credits The Fraternal Order of Firefighters, Firefighters Local 820, Hayward Bolt and Specialty Co., Galilee Baptist Church, Pam Nowlin and the payroll Administration Quota Team from Provident, and Roy Boyd at A.R.T. Branch Store for help and support. Christmas at the fire hall will come on December 16 when firefighters regain the use of their dayroom, and the cycles are presented to their new owners. And the firefighters of the green shift at Hall No. 1 will get an earned, but brief, rest. Phillips says they are scheduled for duty on Christmas Day.

A Grand New Opry

By John W. Coniglio, Chattanooga Times staff photographer

Looking across the glare of the footlights on the bare wood stage, Junior Hunnicutt launches into a fiddle break, backed by the Seeds of Grass Band. Spontaneous applause bursts out backstage while in the auditorium youngsters race up and and down the aisles. Another performer totes a washtub bass into a practice room. From under his cowboy hat J.J. Hillis grins and nods his approval. It's Friday night, and the Opry is going strong. It’s not the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, but the Walden's Ridge Mountain Opry, on Signal Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee, that has Hillis smiling. The program of bluegrass and old-time mountain music is staged every Friday night from 8 until 11p.m.

Presented in the the Walden's Ridge Community Center on Signal Mountain in a building that once served as a schoolhouse, the Mountain Opry attracts
performers from all walks of life, all drawn by the love of traditional forms of music. New faces and inexperienced talent are always welcome, and untried performers can expect an enthusiastic audience response to their offerings.

Hillis and Ray Fox, the Opry organizers, keep the acts moving on and off stage, while jam sessions go on in the back rooms. During warm weather the informal picking circles overflow into the parking lot. Spectators often mingle with the musicians and request renditions of favorite tunes.

A community project, the Opry is owned by the people who donate their time and money and by the musicians who contribute their talent. There is no admission charge, but every Friday night Hillis passes his cowboy hat to collect money for operating expenses. Musicians and spectators alike contribute when the hat circulates. No one is paid for performing. At least not in cash. The fellowship with other musicians, the chance to exchange art forms, experience different kinds of traditional music, and not least, the good feeling that comes from being applauded, all help make the Opry very rewarding.

Although the Opry is not yet two years old, Fox and Hillis are looking ahead.
"What I'd really like to see," said Fox, "is a radio station to come in and go live with the Opry on Friday nights. I think they would get an audience. And who knows? The Mountain Opry might become the Grand New Opry of the 1980s.”
All photography, video and multimedia on this website is copyright ŠJohn W. Coniglio.