Robert Sparks Walker is rightly praised for pulling the history of Brainerd Mission to the Cherokee out of the shadows and for leading the effort to preserve what remained. Likewise, he deserves credit for the name of the community cobbled together from Olde Towne, Sunnyside, Dutchtown, Belvoir, and The Mission in 1926, as well as the renaming of what was then known as Bird’s Mill Road to Brainerd Road and East Brainerd Road. But he may not have realized how close to history he came.
The road we now know by the above names was initially a branch of what the Long Knives called the Great Indian Warpath, one of several in the area. Ultimately, this system (rather than a single route) ran from Mobile Bay in the south to Nova Scotia in the north. The Great Indian Warpath is why John McDonald, trader and assistant to British Deputy Commissioner for Southern Indian Affairs Alexander Cameron, set up shop on the left bank of the river we now know as South Chickamauga Creek.
Just two years after John Ross and Timothy Meigs established Ross’ Landing in 1815, Brainerd Mission and the Church of Christ at Chickamauga opened their doors. Because of its importance and interest in it nationally (Pres. James Monroe came to see it in person) and internationally, Brainerd became one of the main destinies for passengers and cargo dismembarking at the landing on the Tennessee River. It likewise had an access route to the nearby Georgia, or Federal, Road between Athens, Georgia, and Nashville.
From 1817, when Brainerd opened, until 1838, when it closed and most of its personnel went west with the ethnically-cleansed Cherokee, the road between Ross’ Landing and the Federal Road by way of Brainerd was called Brainerd’s Road. West of Missionary Ridge, the path followed roughly the route of McCallie Avenue, then, like the avenue once did, it turned left at the foot of the ridge to ascend its side. This was more or less the same route as the ancient pathway. About two-thirds of the way to the top, it divided, one branch headed toward the Shallow Ford, the other toward Brainerd over what’s now Bird’s Mill Road.
After going along the crest for a bit, it followed what is now Rosemont, then Brainerd Road, until Talley Road goes over the hill where the Confederate rearguard attempted to hold off Sheridan’s division the night of 25 November 1863. Where Talley Road makes a sharp left, turning north, however, Brainerd’s Road continued straight until meeting what is now Old Mission Road, which it followed until reaching Brainerd Mission.
Crossing the South Chickamauga Creek, Brainerd’s Road passed through Old Chickamauga Town along Old Bird’s Mill Road onto what is now East Brainerd Road, then continued on towards the southeastern end of the village of Opelika (the modern Graysville, Georgia), which took in much of what is now southern East Brainerd. Here, Brainerd’s Road ran to the east side of town, fording the creek at about the same place as the railroad bridge, and continued on to meet the Federal Road, going through Ross Hollow between Peavine Ridge on the west and The Backbone on the east. From there, turning left would take you to Spring Place then Athens, turning right would take you to Ross’ Gap and down Chattanooga Valley to go over the bench of Lookout Mountain to Running Water, Nickajack, and ultimately Nashville.
From the Removal until after the Civil War, most of the route became known simply as the Missionary Road. In 1849, John D. Gray dammed the South Chickamauga Creek to create a reservoir for his mill, and the road between Graysville and the Federal Road moved to the west side of Peavine Ridge. That same year, the Western & Atlantic Railroad was completed from Chattanooga to Tunnel Hill, Georgia, on the west side of Cheetooga Mountain, and Graysville and Chattanooga became two of the most important centers of transportation in the area.
After the war, the entire length of the road between the two towns became known as the Chattanooga-Graysville Pike. Most locals, however, called the route Bird’s Mill Road because of its importance, which was such that farmers came from as far away as what is now North Chattanooga to grind their grain. Likewise, the section between the town and the large McCallie farm at the foot of the ridge became better known as the McCallie Road.
The advent of automobiles brought changes to the road. In Concord, as East Brainerd was then still known, Bird’s Mill Road was altered to dead end into Jenkins Road, which continued straight across along what is now called Mackey Avenue, which used to connect to Davidson Road. Ryall Springs, or Parker’s Gap, Road intersected with Jenkins Road, and Graysville Pike branched off of that.
On the “main” Bird’s Mill Road, the completion of the Missionary Ridge Tunnels significantly altered the course of the roads, with no more need to ascend and descend the ridge. The building of a bridge over South Chickamauga Creek somewhat downstream from the old ford between the former mission and what was known at the time as Whorley changed the route of the road.
The building of Lee Highway in the 1920s changed the route even more, for the road then bypassed that first leg of Talley Road, and subsequently the Old Mission Road, to follow its current path. East of South Chickamauga Creek, Lee Highway bypassed where Bird’s Mill Road now turned toward Concord headed to Chattanooga-Cleveland Pike, now Bonny Oaks Drive.
Brainerd, as a community, organized itself in 1926 with the aim of being annexed into the City of Chattanooga, and for the length the two coexisted Bird’s Mill Road-Lee Highway became Brainerd Road. From where Bird’s Mill Road had branched off toward Concord, the road now became East Brainerd Road, only now extending all the way to Apison. The same year, the community’s school across the road from the donor of the land it sat upon changed its name from Walnut Grove to East Brainerd along with its community, though the byroad beside it officially remained Walnut Grove Road until 1968.