Chattanooga: Tow Truck Town

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In Chattanooga, Tenn., there are some must-see attractions: the Tennessee Aquarium, the legendary Rock City, and the famous Ruby Falls. But when you exit the interstate, you always find a few surprises.

Yes, it really exists: The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum. A group known as the "Friends of Towing" built it, and it features tow trucks like you've never seen before.

It contains towing artifacts, towing memorabilia, and towing exhibits. It's a shrine that so treasures tow trucks, you're not allowed to touch them – as curator Frank Thomas has to remind visitors.

And while people are a little surprised to see a towing museum, they actually flock to see the trucks.

Thomas says he was sure that the concept of the museum would be interesting to outsiders. He was right -- about 10,000 visitors tour the facility each year.

One visitor says, "I was looking at the welcome center and said, 'Towing museum? What's that? Tow trucks? You're kidding me.'"

Another visitor, who traveled all the way from Michigan, says, "I think it's great. I think it's time they got some recognition."

One young woman took a train from Boston, then a bus from Atlanta to get to the towing Mecca. Her dad drives a tow truck – back in Japan.

Thomas thinks that the museum has great historical significance. He points out a display that includes an army tow truck that was used in World War II.

"It helped win the war. That was one of the wreckers finest hours, I believe," says Thomas.

The museum's location in Chattanooga is strategic, Thomas explains. "This was where it was all started by Ernest Holmes. [He] built the first twin boom wrecker and patented it in 1916 just a block and a half from where we are now. He used a 1913 Cadillac touring car; cut the back out of it."

Chattanooga is the unofficial capital of towing, and people come here on "towing tours" to see the birthplace and the museum.

A deluxe Chattanooga towing tour package could include the site where Ernest Walter Holmes invented the tow truck: the site of the incident that started it all.

In 1916, John Wiley's tin lizzie flew off the road and landed upside down in Chattanooga's Chicamauga Creek. It took Ernest Holmes 8 hours and six men to recover the vehicle. Vowing never to go through that again, Holmes returned to his garage and invented the tow truck.

The tour could also include a stop at the world's largest tow truck manufacturer, Miller Industries. John Hawkins is a vice president at Miller, and he's a member of the Tow Truck Hall of Fame.

"We look at the towing industry here in Chattanooga as what the auto industry is to Detroit. This is the capital without a doubt," Hawkins says.

There are nearly 300 Hall of Fame inductees, all towing professionals from around the world. They are the Babe Ruths of towing.

The Hall of Fame gives young towers like Jeff from Yates Towing something to aspire to.

"I think you should be someone who has been in it for a long time, does outstanding work at reasonable rates. I just try to be nice, you know, and go out and do my job and not scratch or dent. I don't know if that qualifies as Hall of Fame, but that's what I try to do is be the best that I can be," Jeff explains.

Thomas says that towers are unsung heroes, and that they don't receive enough credit. "They're the first ones out there to help people get out of the ditch," he notes.

Thomas says the museum's mission is threefold: to preserve towing's rich heritage, to provide continuing towing education, and to honor towing heroes like pioneer Ernest Walter Holmes, without whom the wheels of the entire world would still be spinning in the muddy ditches of time.