Saturday, May 26, 2018

Fairyland Caverns, Tennessee - August 1958

Today I'm going to share some 1958 slides from "Fairyland Caverns" in southern Tennessee (Chattanooga, that is). The "caverns" are a part of famous "Rock City", on Lookout Mountain. Rock City opened in 1932, with winding paths (named after fairy tale characters), interesting rock formations, and beautiful gardens. 

The caverns are actually man-made (built in between large rocks that happened to be very close together), added in 1947 to feature playful, black-lit dioramas featuring gnomes and familiar scenes from fairy tale classics.

Here's a photo of the entrance to Fairlyand Caverns, as seen in 1958. As a child, the idea of walking into that dark tunnel would have been scary! But once I had conquered my fears, I'm sure I would have loved this place.

Here's a scan of an early postcard...

... and here's a lovely photo (scrounged from the Internet) showing Lookout Mountain. I wonder how it got its name? Perhaps it was named after General Hezekiah Lookout. On a clear day, guests can supposedly see seven states from atop the mountain.

Here is one of the dioramas... the playful gnomes have built themselves a carnival (why, it's the "Carnival of the Gnomes"), complete with a Ferris Wheel, and a big top containing thrilling and mysterious side shows. Remember, all of the scenes were intended to be viewed by black light, so the flash ruins some of the magic.

There's Cinderella, running away from the prince (who has found her glass slipper). Cindy's coach has shrunk down to normal pumpkin size, and the horses have turned back into rats. Disgusting, filthy rats.

You know it, you love it, it's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Looks like her prince has just awakened her with his kiss, which was mighty neighborly of him. If you look closely through the dimness, you can see flitting birds and butterflies, as well as an assortment of woodland critters.

The Castle of the Gnomes. Fun fact: if you give a gnome a beer, he will grant you three wishes - as long as those wishes are that you want to be in the company of a drunken gnome.

Hansel and Gretel were greedy little children who ate gingerbread and candy instead of the healthy apples, string cheese, "ants on a log" (celery with peanut butter and raisins), and other snacks prepared by their mother. Also, they never flossed and rarely bathed. Frankly, I'm on the witch's side on this one.

I happened to find this slide (from 1963) showing a charming little snack shop, located right next to the "Lookout Mountain Museum" which I think is where the Mona Lisa can be seen. I might be wrong. The souvenir shop is still there today.

I hope you have enjoyed your visit to Rock City, Lookout Mountain, and Fairlyland Caverns!


Nanook said...


It may not have the 'slickness' of today's attractions, but there's an awful lot to be said for the simplicity of places such as this, that actually makes them rather sublime. The world could use more of such things. (And do I spy cumulus clouds in today's view from Lookout Mountain-?) Who cares. What a fabulous shot-!

Thanks, Major.

Melissa said...

I... THINK my Grandma may have gone there once? On one of her many road trips. I have a vague memory of a snapshot - definitely not a post card - of the entrance in the first picture. She had pictures from several different trips to Carlsbad, too, so maybe she was just a cavern enthusiast.

The faces of the gnomes at Gnome Castle look twisted in the agony of constipation. I think they've been eating too much plaster of Paris and not enough good, gritty mud.

Chuck said...

Visiting this place reminded me a bit of a View-Master story reel, where they would represent scenes from fairy tales, Disney films (not always the same thing), and cartoons with sculptured scenes that transferred beautifully to 3-D. These do look much better under black light.

Rock City really is a spectacularly beautiful place. The waterfall in the third photo is artificial, but it's no less beautiful by being man-made (reminds me of other waterfalls in another place...). Not to be outdone, there is a natural waterfall, Ruby Falls, inside the mountain.

The gift shop in the last photo is now the National Park Visitors' Center for Point Park Battlefield, a unit of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. The castellated entrance to the park - which commemorates the Nov 24th, 1863 "Battle Above the Clouds" and offers spectacular views of Chattanooga below - is directly behind us.

The "Electric Map," showing the various battles of the 1863 Chattanooga Campaign on a large diorama, is in the building behind and to the left of the little shop in the 1963 photo. While the technology is a bit dated, for a history buff like me it was worth the price of admission (it doesn't hurt my interest that I have a relative who fought in that campaign).

I think it's time for me to plan another trip to Chattanooga. Thanks for the reminder, Major!

Pegleg Pete said...

Great photos today, Major! Having grown up in Nashville, I went to Rock City once when I was so young that my memories of it have always been very, very vague. A couple of summers ago, though, when I was back in Tennessee visiting family, my sister and I drove down for the day. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the owners had kept up the small park. The place is still very recognisably a product of the mid-twentieth century but it has been well-maintained and updated just enough to satisfy modern tourists. My sister and I had a pleasant modern Southern lunch on the cliffside terrace restaurant and watched a thunderstorm roll in from across the Georgia/Alabama landscape. When the rain reached the mountaintop we headed over to Fairyland Caverns. As soon as we walked in, all those vague childhood memories came back to me in full technicolour. The large black-lit tableau of fairy tales was every bit as fantastic as I half-remembered. In fact, I spent so long taking photos of it all that my sister had to drag me away in the end. If anyone is passing through Chattanooga and has a couple of hours to spare, I heartily recommend stopping at this small, charming park which does a very good job indeed at upholding twentieth century roadside attraction heritage. And you can get a kit to make a 'See Rock City' birdhouse as you leave! Thanks again, Major.

Melissa said...

The lady in the blue dress looks like the only one who wants to be there! But at least everyone's colors coordinated, even the tour guide.

Nanook said...

@ Melissa-
Yes, just when was it that [most] folks (in America, at least) decided that to apper anything other than ‘happy’ in a snapshot was a social no-no-? By most accounts, 1958 was well-past the start date. Perhaps these folks are related to that young fella, who has popped-up several times here, dressed in a red shirt with stripes along with super-dark blue jeans, and was once described by The Major as looking as though “...he’s about to undergo a root canal-!” Cheer-up, all you sorrowful souls.

JC Shannon said...

I have said it before , and I will say it again, I love these little Mom and Pop attractions. A place where you could take the kids to a local family friendly place. Imagine the time and craftsmanship required to bring these fairy tales to life. Walt did it in a much bigger way, but the result was the same. A place where families could have an adventure for not alot of money and spend the day together. Thanks Major, for the great photos.

Major Pepperidge said...

Nanook, I do like the old-fashioned charm of this place. No high-tech glitz, just creativity and imagination. I forgot to mention that the photo of Lookout Mountain shows “Lover’s Leap” - gruesome!

Melissa, sounds like your Grandma was a spelunker at heart, which is pretty cool. I’ve been to a few caverns, but a few of the more cramped examples gave me claustrophobia! I thought the gnomes looked kind of evil, but constipation can do that, I suppose.

Chuck, yes, it really does resemble some of the early View-Master reels. There’s a non-Disney “Snow White” set that really looks like this. I knew that the waterfall was man-made, but did not know that they had a natural example inside. Thanks for the info on the revamped gift shop! “Castellated” or “crenellated”… which is right? Maybe they both are. I’m all for more electric maps too, reminds me of trips to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. If you go to Chattanooga, take plenty of photos!

Pegleg Pete, cool that you visited Rock City and Fairyland Caverns so recently. I’ve never been to the South (well, when I was a baby I lived in Georgia briefly, but don’t remember it), so that is a whole big segment of the U.S. that is just waiting for me. All I need is lots of time and lots of extra dough! I love the kit for the “See Rock City” birdhouse, what an awesome idea for a souvenir.

Melissa, maybe the whole trip was Miss Blue Dress’s idea?

Nanook, I have to admit, sometimes one just doesn’t want to have their photo taken. My poor niece and nephew had to pose for endless pictures, baring their teeth in an approximation of a smile.

Jonathan, too many of these little road-side attractions have vanished over the years, I’m glad that Rock City and Fairyland Caverns is still there. I’m sure there were millions of people who could only dream of going to California to see a place like Disneyland - all of them needed their own local attractions for a day of fun.

Anonymous said...

@Pegleg Pete, that is a great story, thank you for sharing it.

There's a strange feeling when you return as an adult to visit a place that was familiar as a child, especially when the place hasn't changed. I've felt that before. Almost like the thing you are seeing is being projected over the memory and you have an unsettling feeling until the two images overlap properly and then it goes away.

I had it once very vividly going through the side entrance of Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland, the one on the Wishing Well side. I felt like my current viewpoint was too high off the ground, which was true. It made me a little dizzy, but I had had a couple of metaphors that day.

Thanks for this interesting post, Major. Always fun to learn about places like this that we might never encounter in travel.