The World’s Only Museum for Towing and Recovery

Towing

A vital, but perhaps underappreciated industry has a place to recognize its best work.

[This article first appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Wire Rope Exchange]

By:  Bob Glenn, Editor

Anyone who has ever ventured toward Chattanooga, Tennessee by automobile can probably name several well-known and heavily promoted attractions in the area.  In fact, the iconic barns with red sides, black roofs, and big white letters imploring travelers to “SEE ROCK CITY” date all the way back to 1935.  And it’s hard to make a case that nearby Ruby Falls is any less well known.

And anyone who has spent enough time driving a car has probably also had need of a tow-truck.  Be it a breakdown or an accident, there are 35,000 towing companies in North America, with hundreds of thousands of employees standing ready to serve in what can be urgent and sometimes dangerous situations.

And what do these things have to do with one another?

This 1953 GMC cabover “Bubblenose” was found abandoned in a field. George Lanser restored the vehicle as a mascot for his business, and it was later given to the Museum.” Photo courtesy of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum.

In Chattanooga, you will also find The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum.  Established by a group of industry professionals known as the “Friends of Towing”, the museum began as an exhibit housed in a semi-trailer which could be transported to industry events or trade shows wherever they might be held.

In 1995, Chattanooga became its permanent home.  Apart from its convenience and scenic appeal, the city was a logical choice to locate the museum, having been home to Ernest Holmes.  Holmes invented the tow-truck here and together with his son built the Ernest Holmes Company into a major towing equipment manufacturer.

To be clear, this facility serves a much larger purpose than its more famous neighbors.  The mission statement for the organization reflects a wide-ranging effort to promote knowledge and understanding of the industry, from documenting and displaying its history to honoring those who have made unselfish and significant contributions to its development.  And it serves to commemorate and support an overlooked form of first responder.

A Holmes 1945 Military Wrecker built in Chattanooga, this unit supported the Red Ball Express during World War II, and is one of more than 7,000 built between 1941 and 1949. Photo courtesy of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum.

Notable exhibits include a restored 1926 Ford Model T retrofitted with a vintage Manley crane, a 1948 Chevrolet truck with a Holmes 515 bed, and a Holmes 1945 Military Wrecker.  The latter has a particularly remarkable history having supported the Red Ball Express, the army truck line which delivered supplies to the front lines during WWII.  It was later given to the French Army.  This unit has a 15-ton capacity and was built in Chattanooga, and is one of a total of 7,238 of this model built between 1941 and 1949.

And there is the World’s Fastest Wrecker, a favorite among visitors.  A 1979 Chevrolet equipped with a Holmes 440 bed, driven by expert stock car racer Eddie Martin, circled the track at the Alabama International Motor Speedway (commonly known as Talladega) at an average lap time of 109.33 miles per hour, and probably exceeding 130 miles per hour on straightaways.  Professional driver, closed course… don’t try this at home!

In addition to hosting roughly twenty immaculately restored tow trucks at any given time, all donated or on loan to the museum, there is also a wide array of equipment on display, and the world’s largest collection of toy tow trucks is on hand to be seen.

The Hall of Fame is also integral to the purpose of the facility.  A tradition begun by the aforementioned “Friends of Towing”, the Hall of Fame recognizes individuals who have made a major contribution to the industry.  Nominations can be submitted for consideration, and a new class is inducted each year.  In addition to long tenure in the industry, criteria for nomination can include development of innovative products or equipment, exemplary dedication (demonstrated by service to the community well beyond paid services), industry leadership or professional achievement.

The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum.

“We typically add five or ten inductees each year,” said the museum’s administrative assistant Nyle Vincent.  “They are pillars of the industry – they’ve each done something really exceptional to support the industry or their communities, and help put the industry in a positive light.”

Two other major initiatives undertaken by the Museum are the Wall of the Fallen and the Survivor Fund.  Why these initiatives?  It may not seem immediately obvious, but towing and recovery professionals are a form of first responder in many situations – some of them quite hazardous.  While there is not a universally accepted definition of the term “first responder”, the U.S. First Responder Association sorts it out in one simple sentence: “A First Responder is any individual who runs toward an event rather than away.”

How does this play out at the side of the road?  A number of sources report that one tow truck operator is killed about every six days in the United States in the course of assisting a motorist.  To address the danger of working roadside for police and others, over the course of the last two decades every state in the U.S. has adopted a form of “Move Over” law – requiring traffic to move out of the lane adjacent to the side of the road where an emergency vehicle is stopped.

A replica of Ernest Holmes’ first wrecker, for which he used a 1913 Cadillac as his starting point. Photo courtesy of the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum.

Notably, we found that all “Move Over” laws include towing operators, either by specifically naming them or by including any emergency vehicle with flashing lights.  How well motorists understand that is unclear.  Towing operators are killed at “…double the rate of other first responders at the roadside.  And many are hit-and-run events” added Vincent.

In that content, the Wall of the Fallen, dedicated in 2006, serves “To honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, to generate public awareness of the dangers involved in the towing and recovery industry and to permanently record and commemorate those involved in fatalities in the towing and recovery industry.”  In addition to the onsite wall, their photos and stories are shared on the Museum’s website.

Beyond that, in 2005 the Museum established the Survivors Fund to provide financial assistance to the families of towing operators who lose their lives in the course of their work.  Fundraising efforts, supported by corporations, industry associations and individuals enabled the fund to begin offering immediate help to families in 2007 and it continues today.

In addition to visiting, you can support the Museum, a 501(c)3 non-profit, and its work in a variety of ways.  Annual memberships with various levels starting at $50 provide a range of benefits.  You can also make one-time or recurring contributions to the Museum or to the Survivors Fund at their website.  There are also various volunteer opportunities.

While towing industry professional are frequent visitors, the museum also draws a large share of its visitors from more general tourist traffic.  If you happen to pass through Chattanooga, we think the Towing Museum is something quite unexpected and well worth your time.

The International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame & Museum is located at 3315 Broad Street in Chattanooga, TN and is open seven days a week excluding certain holidays.  To learn more, plan a visit, become a member or donate to support their ongoing work, visit their website at www.internationaltowingmuseum.org.

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