Many places in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been left virtually untouched since the Park came into existence, including such places as the former Wonderland Club and Appalachian Club. Though untouched, the former Wonderland Club is slowly disintegrating back into what was once only forested area in the Elkmont region of the National Park. The Appalachian Club and Clubhouse, along with some cabins, are slated for preservation.
Though today, Elkmont is a region in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is home to a campground, ranger station and a historic district, back in the early 1900’s it was also the location of a beautiful resort. The small town of Elkmont was originally established in 1908 for the logging community to base its operations out of when the Little River Lumber Company began logging in the upper Little River and Jakes Creek area. As early as 1910, the company began to sell building lots to folks from Knoxville to fulfill their hunting and fishing desires. Those prominent men from the Knoxville area established the Appalachian Club soon after just south of the small town of Elkmont. The Wonderland Park Hotel was constructed in 1912 on a hill that overlooked Elkmont. It operated for seven years before a group of businessmen from Knoxville purchased it also and it became the base for the Wonderland Club. During the following twenty years, the Appalachian Club and the Wonderland Club became the premier resort location for East Tennessee’s wealthier residents and a favorite spot for them to vacation and socialize. They constructed cottages near the Hotel and spend lazy summer afternoons enjoying their stay in their woodland wonderland.
The Wonderland Hotel was built from local materials with chestnut boards harvested nearby. The original steps to the Hotel began at the Little River Railroad tracks and went to the top of the hill where the Hotel was constructed and river rocks were cemented at the top of the steps, spelling out the word Wonderland. The remnants of these steps can still be accessed today just to the left of the entrance to Elkmont Campground but visitors have to look hard to find them as nature is determined to claim what was once its own. The Hotel was two stories with 26 sleeping rooms, none of which were the same. All decorated differently, most included private bathrooms, with many having antique claw foot soaking tubs. There were no phones, no radios and no TVs in the rooms at the Wonderland Hotel. It was the perfect setting to enjoy nature at its best. Most of the guests would choose to spend their evenings on the wide, wrap around front porch, sitting in rocking chairs or swinging in the porch swings, relaxing to the sound of the mountains. The porch provided a wonderful view of Blanket Mountain and the guests were entertained by raccoons that would come up on the porch in the evening to beg for food.
If guests weren’t out on the porch soaking up some of the Smoky Mountain air, they could be found in the large lobby where comfy chairs and couches surrounded a large brick fireplace. Tables were available for card games or writing letters and on Friday and Saturday nights, an old fashioned sing along or a square dance would take place in the ballroom next to the Lobby. One favorite thing to do there was to check the bulletin board near the rear doors that led to the parking lot where people would post photos from their earlier visits to the Wonderland Club.
The dining room at the Wonderland Hotel was well known for home cooked meals and excellent food, possibly the best food in or near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There was a split log mantle on the fireplace and checkered tablecloths on the tables. Dinner was served family style and at times, visitors were treated to locally caught deer, bear, rabbit, wild turkey, quail, ruffled grouse and even rattlesnake. Fresh trout from the river was also a treat on the menu when available. When the Hotel first opened, you could buy your meals with your room by the day, week, month or three-month season at the price of seventy-five cents for adults and fifty-cents for children.
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was created, the owners and members of the Wonderland Club and Appalachian Club were given lifetime leases on the buildings and cabins and cottages they owned but these leases were changed to 20-year leases in 1952. Later, in 1972, the government renewed the leases. When the 20-year leases ran out in 1992, the National Park Service refused to renew the leases. According to their general management plan, the hotel and surrounding cottages were slated to be removed. Before that could take place, in 1994 the Wonderland Hotel and several dozen of the surrounding Elkmont cottages were listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the “Elkmont Historic District, Great Smoky Mountains National Park”. This ignited a debate lasting 15 years over the fate of the historic buildings. Though the main hotel disintegrated and collapsed in 2005, the National Park Service had plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 of the cottages and structures in the Appalachian Club area, since it was older and more historic. There were to remove all of the other structures in the Wonderland Club area, including the annex that had been built for the Hotel.
Since most of the lifetime leases expired in 1992, with two expiring in 2001, the National Park Service’s General Management Plan of 1982 called for removal of the structures to allow nature to reclaim the area. Due to the placement of the area on the National Register of Historic Places, the removal of the structures was halted. Standing untouched, nature has done its best to reclaim what was once forest and if nature has its way, they will all soon be gone. Future plans for the region are still to remove the structures but some will be saved and maintained.
The structures slated to be saved are located in what was once called ‘Daisy Town’, a part of the Appalachian Club section. They are the oldest and deemed the most historic. One of the restoration projects will be the Appalachian Club’s Clubhouse. After burning down in a fire in 1932, it was rebuilt in 1934. Another of the structures to be saved is the Levi Trentham cabin, Elkmont’s oldest surviving cabin, which was built in 1830. It was originally located at the upper part of Jakes Creek but was moved to the Daisy Town section in 1932 for use as a guest house.
Yet others to be saved are the Addicks cabin and Mayo cabin. These two cabins are believed to be ‘set-off’ or shanty cabins. They would arrive on the train and be ‘set-off’ near the tracks to be later taken to the logging sites back when the logging companies were working in the Elkmont area. They would later move these shanties to more remote areas to be used for hunting and fishing. Then, with the creation of the Wonderland Club and the Appalachian Club, logging company executives renovated these small cabins to become vacation spots for their families. The Addicks cabin consists of three of these shanties joined together with an enclosed bathroom and kitchen, among other rooms added on to expand the space. And of course, Adamless Eden, a small children’s cabin that is a small log playhouse used by the children adjacent to the cabin. The yard between and around the cabin and the playhouse was landscaped and subdivided into child-like garden constructions, walkways, walls, stone patios with garden edging and a fish pond. Not all cabins were log cabins in this region. Most of the cabins and cottages were constructed of a frame construction with board and batten exteriors. The Smith cabin and the Levi Trentham cabin are log cabins.
One of the cabins chosen for preservation was the Byers cabin, located a bit south of the Daisy Town section. It was associated with park promoter David Chapman, who was one of the men instrumental in the creation of the National Park. The Spence cabin, a large lodge-style cabin, has been restored and located at the head of the Little River Trail and is also available for reservations as a day use structure.
The Elkmont area was historically divided into three sections. The Wonderland section, which included the Wonderland Hotel and cottages, sat at the crown of a hill in the northeastern part of Elkmont. The current Elkmont Campground and Ranger station is situated where it was once home to the Little River Logging Company and is at the center of Elkmont north of the confluence of Little River and Jakes Creek. South of the confluence of the Little River and Jakes Creek is where you’ll find the Appalachian Club and even then, the Appalachian Club section is divided up even further into three smaller sections including ‘Daisy Town’ near the mouth of Jacks Creek, ‘Society Hill’, further south along the banks, and ‘Millionaires Row’, further east along the banks of the Little River. Exploring all three areas is an adventure.
When exploring the buildings in the Wonderland Club section, use care as the structures are no longer sound. It is also against the law to enter any of these buildings. As stated before, the Wonderland Hotel is gone, only the front steps and the fireplace still stand. Wildflowers now grow where this beautiful hotel once stood. The Annex that was added to the Hotel was destroyed in a devastating fire in May of 2016 and the investigation into the destruction is still under investigation. When peering into the windows of the surrounding cottages and cabins, visitors are likely to see some abandoned furniture or belongings that were left long ago. We aware of animals in the area also as some may have made themselves at home in what was once someone’s summer cottage.
Near the Wonderland Hotel area there is also a short bridge over the Little River that is no longer accessible by car but visitors can walk across the wooden bridge to an open area where there is an array of monitors for acid rain, etc. You can access the bridge by parking in a small gravel area to the right just before the entrance to the Elkmont Campground and walking toward the Little River just past the parking area.
For history buffs and even genealogists, another site to visit in the Elkmont area is the Elkmont Cemetery. The cemetery can be found along a short road that is not marked. Take the first left upon entering the Elkmont Campground area, just a bit before the campground and follow the road to where it comes to a wide gravel parking lot-like area. You will pass the Cemetery on your left just before this parking area and the entrance to the Cemetery is marked with a wooden sign, The Old Elkmont Cemetery, supported by two log posts making an entrance way to the cemetery. Be sure to notice the claw marks along the log posts, possibly left by a bear or other animal sharpening their claws. The Cemetery is well tended and most names can be read on the headstones though there are a few that are only represented by rocks alone.
To reach the Wonderland Club area from Gatlinburg, drive south on Newfound Gap Road/US 441 and turn right onto Little River Road at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Go approximately 5 miles and turn left on Elkmont Campground Road. Just before the campground office, there is a small parking area to the right. If you park here, you’ll cross the road and walk a short way toward the campground. Looking up to your left, pay attention until you see the old stone steps that will lead you up to the Wonderland Hotel site.
To reach the Appalachian Club and Clubhouse from Gatlinburg, drive south on Newfound Gap Road/US 441 and turn right onto Little River Road at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Go approximately 5 miles and turn left on Elkmont Campground Road. Drive approximately 1.4 miles and turn left, just before the Campground Office. The sign will read Elkmont Nature Trail 0.3, Little River Trail 0.6, and Jakes Creek Trail. Follow the road to Jakes Creek Trail and continue on around the one-way loop to the Appalachian Club. The Clubhouse is available for rental for daily use between April 1 and October 31. Reservations are required and can be made up to one year in advance. For more information concerning day rentals, call (865)-436-1261.
When exploring the Elkmont area, the Wonderland Club area and the Appalachian Club area take note there is little to no cell phone coverage. The nearest cell phone coverage is approximately 3 miles away at Maloney Point where there is a scenic pullout. Whenever exploring on foot, it is a good idea to give details of where you are going and when you will return to a friend or family member for safety’s sake. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a large area mostly wooded and secluded. With almost no cell phone coverage, letting someone know approximately when you will return from exploring is a good idea. Enjoy, explore, have fun. Always be bear aware, no matter where you are in our National Park.