Opinion: Preservation losing out in Moccasin Bend mental health facility replacement

Staff File Photo By Robin Rudd / The current footprint of Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, shown on Nov. 16, 2021, is pictured. A replacement hospital would take up less space.

An archeological assessment is all that stands in the way of a new psychiatric hospital being built on Moccasin Bend and two or three more generations passing before the Moccasin Bend National Archeological District is fully realized.

Forgoing "verbal commitments" that were made when the National Park Service unit was created, more accessible sites for the hospital and public sentiment that leaned heavily toward the hospital moving off the peninsula, the Tennessee Building Commission quickly ratified a $260 million plan Thursday for the replacement Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute to be built on a portion of the current campus.

State Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Marie Williams, who is said to have pushed heavily behind the scenes for the hospital to remain on the bend, said the archeological survey will come before any final decision.

"If the survey is acceptable," she said, "then we will proceed with the razing of the Winston Building (a now empty structure further around the bend from the main campus) and construct the replacement hospital and parking garage on that site."

The variety of historical aspects of Moccasin Bend, from ancient Native American sites to a portion of road used during the Trail of Tears Cherokee removal to a collection of Civil War earthworks, are why the district was created in the first place.

However, whatever artifacts may once have been on the site of the Winston Building and its surroundings may have been eliminated, plowed under or removed in the construction of the hospital in 1959-1961. In that era, more than 60 years ago, little to no care was taken to preserve such artifacts. Indeed, newspaper stories at the time of the construction of the hospital don't mention even the potential of artifacts on the site.

(Construction of Interstate 24 around Lookout Mountain a few years later also sheared off acreage on the toe of the bend to provide additional land on the other side of the Tennessee River on which to build the road.)

(READ MORE: Chattanooga conservationists, health advocates puzzled by Moccasin Bend plan)

A number of Chattanoogans who opposed not the hospital, but the hospital staying on the bend, including National Park Partners Executive Director Tricia King Mims, former Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute board chair Frank "Mickey" Robbins, former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and National Park Partners member Jay Mills, attended the building commission meeting Thursday, but to no avail.

And no mention was made of the Tennessee Historical Commission's determination that demolition of the current facilities would affect the state-owned resource and encouragement of consultation with the commission to minimize or mitigate the effect.

The chairs of the state Senate and state House finance committees, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, also attended and stressed the uncomfortable compromise between the need for a new mental health hospital and the preservation of Moccasin Bend.

Watson mentioned the "balance ... discussed in the meeting today," while Hazlewood admitted the ideal solution would be for the hospital to move elsewhere.

"This is where we are today based on the facts we have today," she said. "This approval that we got in there just now, now we can gather more facts. ... Those facts may change the circumstances. We don't know until we do" proceed.

(READ MORE: What to know as Tennessee plans to build on historically significant Moccasin Bend land)

While the new hospital is planned for only 13 acres, backers of the replacement have said that amount could expand, depending on needs.

It's unclear how quickly the archeological assessment would be undertaken and how extensive it would be, but Karen Stone with the National Park Partners suggested it could become a prolonged "no-win confrontation" with Native American tribes.

"Protests and lawsuits might delay construction and be a very costly fight," she said, noting that Native Americans now have the resources and the "will to fight or sue."

For proponents who don't want to delay all the state land on Moccasin Bend reverting to the National Park Service unit, such a fight may be all they have to hope for.

If the assessment gives the "all clear" signal, the park will go on, building little by little on the significant acreage it has. Eventually, the law enforcement firing range, perhaps the golf course, perhaps other, smaller pieces, will be assumed into the National Park Service unit. But unless an archeological assessment comes up with something significant, or Native Americans stage a brave stand over what was much longer their land than anyone else's, 50 or 60 years or more will go by before all the area is preserved as it should be.