History & Nostalgia
Hardy on History: Toe River Valley Hotels and Inns
By Michael C. Hardy
Driving through the small communities of the Toe River Valley in the N.C. counties of Avery, Mitchell, and Yancey, it might seem hard to believe that there was once a plethora of inns and hotels in the High Country. Many were built long before the era of the automobile, some even before the arrival of trains. Travelers came from across the country to enjoy the natural wonders of the High Country, and these spots gave them a place to stay.
Old English Inn
It is unclear just when the Rowe family built the Old English Inn—most likely right after the American Revolution. According to one article, the property was owned by James Bailey who, in 1866, sold it to Isaac English. The cabin expanded over time. There was also a mica-grading structure added to the original structure. The Old English Inn survives today as a private residence and is believed to be the oldest and largest log structure in the state of North Carolina.
Constructed in the new county of Yancey in 1833, the Nu-Wray Inn is one of the oldest in the western part of the state. Originally, it had eight rooms and was a trading post operated by Bacchus Smith. Then it was purchased by Milton Penland, and in 1870, by Garrett D. Ray. It was known as the Ray Hotel for decades. Due to its location right in the heart of Burnsville, the hotel witnessed much of the town’s history. Among the famous figures rumored to have stayed at the Nu-Wray are Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Christopher Reeve, Elvis Presley, and Jimmy Carter. The Nu-Wray Inn is currently undergoing renovations. The new owners are looking forward to opening the doors to the public for many years to come.
Probably the most famous of the long-gone hotels in the Toe River Valley area was Cloudland Hotel. Constructed on Roan Mountain, half of the hotel was located in Mitchell County, half in Tennessee. In 1877, the hotel’s creator, entrepreneur John Wilder, directed the first twenty-room, spruce-log structure to be built. The second, much larger frame structure was built nearby and opened in 1886. This structure, officially known as Cloudland Hotel, had 166 rooms. Visitors arrived via the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC) at the Roan Mountain station, where a hack took them up the mountain. Cloudland Hotel was steam-heated, a necessity considering its location 6,394 feet above sea level. There was a dance hall and golf course. On staff were a doctor, baker, butcher, and barber. For a variety of reasons, including expensive maintenance and a short open season, Cloudland closed soon after the turn of the century and was abandoned. Eventually, an auction was held, and people purchased furniture and apparatus. Parts of the foundation and a historical marker commemorate the hotel at Roan Mountain State Park.
At times in the early twentieth century, a railroad created an entire town. The town of Altapass was founded because of the Clinchfield Railroad. Altapass “was the premier tourist stop on. . . the Clinchfield Railroad, with a golf course, two resort hotels, and a railroad boarding house.” The Altapass Inn was one of those resort hotels. A guest could “stand on [a] mountain top, over 3,000 feet above the sea level, and commune with the weeping souls above.” In 1913, the area was promoted as “Altapass Inn Above the Land of the Sky.” In 1916, it was the “Queen of the Summitland.” The Inn boasted modern plumbing, a bowling alley, billiards, trap shooting, a house physician, and a ballroom with orchestra. The Inn was sold to a Florida investment group in 1925. Demand to stay at one of the premier resorts in the Blue Ridge was so great in 1926 that the Inn opened a month early. Unfortunately, the Altapass Inn caught fire on May 19, 1926 and was never rebuilt.
Banner Elk Hotel
The Banner Elk Hotel, built around 1856, was a home for Edwin Banner, and was later purchased by Lorenzo Dow Lowe. With the growth of Banner Elk, the owners saw a need to provide lodging for people coming to enjoy the cool summers, the trout fishing, and hunting in the winter months. For fifty years, the Banner Elk Hotel entertained guests. The hotel stopped serving boarders in 1973. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000, but even that designation did not save it. The hotel was razed by several fire departments in training exercises.
Opening in 1901, Spruce Pine’s Topliff Hotel was constructed by Mr. Z. Taylor Phillips. He named the establishment the Umatilla House. In 1917, Phillips placed the Umatilla House up for sale, stating it was the only hotel in town and had thirty rooms, a small cottage, and private water works. The property was purchased in 1920 by C.H. Topliff, who enlarged it with a three-story wing and changed the name. In addition, the Topliff Hotel had a grand ballroom and several offices and hosted many civic groups, like the Rotary; it was also the local bus terminal. On August 6, 1948, the hotel caught fire and was destroyed.
Banner Elk was a happening place in the 1920s. People flocked to the hamlet in the summer months to enjoy all the amenities that the mountains offered. Visitors could stay at the Banner Elk Hotel or the Old Turnpike Inn. As the country struggled through the Great Depression years, Lees-McRae Institute saw an opportunity, and in 1932 chose to open the Tennessee Dorm in the summers as the Pinnacle Inn. The opening of the Pinnacle Inn also provided an opportunity for female students to earn money for the upcoming school year and gain business experience by serving as Inn staff. When the school became co-ed, the male students worked as porters, maintained the golf course, swimming pool, tennis and croquet courts, and worked on the farm. At the time, the Pinnacle was declared the highest resort in elevation east of the Rocky Mountains. The resort offered tennis, croquet, hiking, boating, fishing, and access to the college’s library, but no dancing. The Pinnacle Inn closed in the 1960s. The Tennessee Residence Hall is undergoing restoration in 2023.
The community of Linville was created in 1891. While there were several inns, the centerpiece was the Eseeola Inn. With its chestnut bark exterior, there was nothing quite like it. The Eseeola was one of the finest establishments in Western North Carolina but struggled in the beginning. It took a few years before the right clientele were attracted to the Lodge. Eseeola offered golf, archery, fishing, lawn bowling, and horseback riding. Eventually the building grew, able to provide accommodations for 110 guests. There was a physician and telephone operator when the hotel was open. On Sunday, June 28, 1936, the Eseeola caught fire and was a total loss. Reservations for the upcoming season were moved to the Chestnut Lodge, located directly across from the Eseeola Inn. This structure was built in 1929, and after the 1936 fire, it was renamed the Eseeola Lodge. The Eseeola Lodge is still in operation today.
Michael C. Hardy is the author of twenty-five books, hundreds of articles, and over 1,200 blog posts. He is widely recognized for his local and state-wide histories and for his award-winning works pertaining to North Carolina history. He is the 2010 North Carolina Historian of the Year. Being released in late 2023 is The Hidden History of the Toe River Valley. You can learn more about Michael at www.michaelchardy.com.