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The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum (a.k.a. "Confederama")

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  Tourist Traps Ahoy!

The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum

by Coury Turczyn

Peel open the updated and expanded 1992 edition of The New Roadside America (Fireside), and you'll find it on page 113. Amid the giant walk-in muskies, the mummified FeeJee Mermaids, and the always mysterious Oregon Vortex, is a photo of a simple fort-like building with medieval ramparts on its roof. Any misconception of it being a White Castle burger stand is immediately dispelled by the big, bold letters emblazoned along the front: "CONFEDERAMA." Two Confederate battle flags on either side drive the point home.

The photo caption reads: "Yankees beware! Chattanooga, TN, is the home of Confederama, which recreates 'the battle that sealed the fate of the Confederacy' on a giant electromechanical map."

That's all this indispensable reference book to America's bizarre roadside attractions has to say about Confederama. Which only leaves many unanswered questions, important ones like: What is a Confederama? What is an electromechanical map? And who was the P.T. Barnum-like genius who fused the word Confederate with the non-word rama? As all road veterans know, any tourist trap with "-rama" in its name is surely worth the price of admission, a veritable guarantee of schlock excellence. And if it also includes a device described as being "electromechanical"...well! What we have here is potentially one of the earth's kitsch axis points.

With visions of miniature, robotic Civil War soldiers waging bloody animatronic warfare, I ventured forth on a quest to find this fabled Confederama. Naturally, this took me to Chattanooga's famed Lookout Mountain, home to such illustrious tourist wonders as Ruby Falls and the barn-endorsed Rock City. But alas, when I arrived I discovered a fallen outpost in the battle between good and bad taste—and good taste had won. What was once Confederama was now "The Battles for Chattanooga Electric Map & Museum." It had been moved up the mountain by its owners at Rock City, polished up, and lodged into a respectable-looking structure near the fanciful, castle-like gateway to Point Park. It wasn't even "electromechanical" anymore...

Undaunted, I forged ahead. Inside T.B.F.C.E.M.&M. I found a rather straightforward Civil War gift shop, with model cannons, rebel caps, and Confederate and Union costumes for kiddy reenactments in the back yard. Shows are given any time anybody asks for one, and the clerks seem really happy whenever someone inquires. They'll quickly guide you into the small theater set up in the rear of the building. It is here that the electric map is finally revealed.

Stretching before a few dozen seats is a dramatically-lit diorama of Lookout Mountain and its surrounding terrain—tiny trees, hills, ridges, and the Tennessee River, all dotted by 5,000 ant-like blue and gray soldiers. None of them looked particularly electromechanical, but I held back my disappointment for the moment.

The house lights dimmed and the soundtrack music cued up with a portentous "Da-DAAAA!" Then, an authoritative voice spoke up: "It is 1863, the third bitter year of the war between the states. The conflict goes badly for the confederacy. In the north, Lee's thrust into Pennsylvania has ended in the terrible defeat at Gettysburg. To the west, on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg has fallen to Ulysses S. Grant. Now, Union armies are massing in Eastern Tennessee in a determined effort to cut the South in two. The small town of Chattanooga is about to take its place in history..."

What followed is basically a radio play aided by the visual stimulus of the map, which twinkles with lights to indicate where the particular battle being described took place. The best effect is gunfire which is reproduced via blinking red lights. It lasts about 15 minutes, and is a fine primer on the important battles that took place here. But I must point out to unsuspecting travelers that T.B.F.C.E.M.&M is severely lacking in kitsch value.

Nevertheless, it is a throwback to an era of longer attention spans and more practiced imaginations. Not interactive and barely qualifying as multi-media, the electric map is almost quaint in its refusal to succumb to MTV production values (despite the brochure's frightening promise of a "Digital Phase Sound System"). According to the shop's clerks, the map was originally built in "1930-something," though they're not sure who did it. Perhaps it's just as well—the faint whiff of mystery gives the diorama that much more appeal, as if it were an actual fragment of our roadside attraction history, surfacing here on Lookout Mountain without explanation or apology.

June 8, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 23
© 2000 Metro Pulse