Abandoned motel finds new life

The Warrior Motel is one of the abandoned motor courts around Bryson City and Cherokee, NC.  Now, a local shop owner has purchased the property and operates out of the front of the motel.

The Warrior Motel is one of the abandoned motor courts around Bryson City and Cherokee, NC. Now, a local shop owner has purchased the property and operates out of the former front office of the motel.

There is something about roadside motor courts that call to me. I’m not talking about motels, your Best Westerns or your Holiday Inn Expresses. I’m talking about a motor court. The kinds of places that had neon signs shouting at passing travelers to stay the night. The kind of place that advertised their water gardens and had a family-run diner on the lot. The kind of place you stopped when you were driving your spanking-new Mustang along Route 66 on your way to California.

If you want to see these today, you have to get off the interstates and hit the blue highways. Many of the remaining motor courts left standing are abandoned and in disrepair. But if you listen closely, you’ll hear them. They whisper, “I used to be a cool cat. People had a groovy time in my water garden.”

So I’m a little rusty on my 1960s slang. But you get the idea. Beyond the cracked pavement and busted gutters, you can see it: An old-school muscle car roars into the lot, chrome gleaming in the sun. A mother in her cat-eye sunglasses slathers on oil poolside while Junior and Joanie splash around. A road-weary salesman in a rumpled suit slurps coffee in the diner. The glory of the American Road trip at its height.

They just don't make signs like this anymore.

The sign for the Warrior Motel will get your attention. It features a brave holding a tomahawk that used to move back and forth. Behind that, you’ll see where the water garden used to be. There is still an umbrella shrouded in weeds marking its place. The pavement is cracked and growing a weed garden now.

For an abandoned motel, the entire property is really in remarkable condition. Although, to be fair, the motel is no longer abandoned. It is also no longer a motel. A local shop owner has set up in what used to be the front office. She carries antiques and random wares – including some nice pieces of furniture and a fantastic chandelier I would have bought if I had somewhere to hang it.

My picture isn't great, but if you look closely, can you can see that white spot on the right? That's the remaining umbrella where the pool used to be.

My picture isn’t great, but if you look closely, you can see that white spot on the right. That’s the remaining umbrella where the pool used to be.

According to one blogger who visited the Warrior Motel in 2010, it was abandoned in 2006. But even looking at another visitor’s photos from November 2014, the property still wasn’t in as bad condition as I would expect. You could tell that animals were coming in and out of the open doors, but overall damage really wasn’t that bad.

Comparing my photos with the November visitor’s, I can tell that there has been a hefty amount of cleanup. Some of the rooms are still full of beds, but some of them have been cleared. I’m curious to see how the current owner of the Warrior Motel continues its restoration. I didn’t ask what her plans were for the place, but I hope whatever she does, she leaves its character in tact.

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Ghost Town in the Smokies

As we’re rustling though wet leaves, its hard to imagine that this tranquil plot of land has been the subject of so much controversy. In fact, its pretty easy to overlook the community entirely. The only sound is some laughing teenagers somewhere around a bend in the road ahead, and, if you’re close enough, streaming water from the Little River.  If not for the leafless trees granting glimpses the near century-old vacation homes, you wouldn’t even know they’re there.

DSC_3875Elkmont started as a logging base in 1908. Within a couple of years the logging company had a bunch of cleared out land and no way to make more money from it, so they started selling plots to hunters and fisherman, drawing outdoor enthusiasts out to the wilderness of the Smokies. Cottages and hotels started popping up on the mountain and an elite social club – the Appalachian Club – was established. But not everyone carried enough snobbery to get into this club, and the Appalachian Club rejects wanted their own fraternity as well. So, made their own group – the Wonderland Club – and Elkmont continued its transformation to an elite vacation spot for wealthy Tennesseans.

To keep shuttling people into Elkmont, the logging company let people travel in on its railroad, even creating a nonstop shuttle from Knoxville. But once the loggers had finished with the mountain, they left like a thief in the night and took their railroad tracks with them.  Of course, the Appalachian Clubbers – including the then-Tennessee governor – and their lower-class counterparts the Wonderland Clubbers were not to happy about this. But never fear – the path left by the railroad was perfect for roads, so transportation was soon restored and everyone went back to their hunting, fishing and socializing.

DSC_3952When my parents visited Elkmont last summer, they walked past several of the decaying dwellings before they realized there was anything around the path. Some of the old homes from Elkmont — those that were determined to have some kind of historical significance — have been moved to a display of sorts called “Daisy Town” that’s maintained by the National Park Service. But the ones that remain are in various states of disrepair. The decision to let these cabins be claimed by the mountains was about 50 years in the making.

With controversy one – the railroad debacle – out of the way, Elkmonters moved on to what would become controversies two through 575, and all because someone went to Yellowstone.

Willis P. and Anne Davis suggested creating a National Park in the Smokies, but didn’t follow up on it. However, David C. Chapman took the idea and shared it with some influential Tennessean legislators. (Remember the Appalachian Club? Friends in high places.) Once the National Park designation started rolling, opposition sprang up. A group consisting of logging companies and mountaineers wanted to have the spot designated a national forest instead of a national park – because that would give them more freedom to use and develop the land instead of it being returned to and maintained in its natural state.

DSC_3962They ultimately lost that battle, but their fight did result in Elkmonters being excluded from eminent domain. Instead, they were able to sell their land for half its value and get lifetime leases in return. These leases let the owners keep the land until the last person on the deed died, and then the property would go to the park. People in other parts of the park weren’t so fortunate; many of them were forced to sell their land to the Park Service and relocate.

These lifetime leases were renewed in 1952 and 1972, but not in 1992. By that time, the area was again wrapped in controversy.

The park’s management plan at the time called for all of the Elkmont buildings to be removed so the area could be returned to its original, wild state. But all that changed – again – in 1994 when several buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A 15-year debate ensued. On one side were the conservationists – those who wanted everything removed and no trace of humans left. On the other – those who wanted to preserve the area, or at least the parts that represented the history of it. Finally, a compromise of sorts was reached. The Park Service decided to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 other cottages and outbuildings. But while the argument raged, the Wonderland Hotel, among other buildings, had already decayed to the point of collapse and the even the buildings they decided to keep had fallen into greater disrepair.

Today, you can see the cottages that were kept in “Daisy Town” or rent the restored Spence Cabin. If you’re feeling outdoorsy, you can reserve a spot at the busy Elkmont Campground and pick up one of the trailheads in the area.

Overall, the area is very accessible. Daisy Town has convenient parking and is mostly level. The road and paths that took us through the abandoned homes were also mostly level, but there were some inclines.  I’d rate it a three on the Gus Scale.

To get there, take Little River Road past the Sugarland Visitors Center and follow signs to the Elkmont Campground.