During the decades immediately following the Civil War, Chattanooga began to grow. Lookout Mountain, looming large near Chattanooga, was a constant presence and landmark of the growing city.
There had been efforts to develop the top of the northern end of Lookout Mountain before the Civil War. After the war, hotels were opened. Once an Incline Railway had been established up the mountain, transporting people and building equipment became easier. The Point Hotel was built in 1885, at the end of the newly constructed Lookout Incline No. 1. What Lookout Mountain didn’t have was a large, grand hotel. And by the late 1880s, a group of area businessmen decided to build one. Construction began in 1887.
A Civil War veteran, Col. R.L. Watkins, led a group of businessmen in the early developing of Lookout Mountain, including building this grand hotel. Chattanooga architect Samuel McClung Patton was hired as the architect. Patton’s grand, expansive hotel opened June 2, 1890, and a formal ball helped inaugurate it two weeks later. It stood directly above the ending spot for the Lookout Incline Railway, known as the No. 2. To get to the inn, visitors rode on Pullman cars up the broad gauge road to the top of Lookout Mountain.
Larger than anything seen on the mountain, it was well over 300 feet from end to end. An early brochure stated, “The Inn is a beautiful structure, located on the eastern face of old Lookout at its summit. Three hundred and sixtyfive feet in length and four stories in height, its external appearance is exceedingly striking, its fine proportions and architectural beauty being grandly displayed by its surroundings of oak and pine forests. The hotel affords accommodations for five hundred guests, and the private apartments are unusually spacious.”
The Lookout Inn had a lobby and two towers near its center. There were elevators, electricity and gas, and it was thought to be fireproof. Its water was supplied by the nearby Leonora Spring.
Many important guests visited the inn, including three presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. The inn also was popular among Chattanoogans. Many rented rooms for the summer months to escape the heat down in the city.
Despite its popularity, the inn often was in financial trouble. In 1899 Read House operator Sam Read agreed to manage the Lookout Inn. By 1903 the inn had been through some renovations, including the addition of a billiard hall and a casino. Guests could eat as early as 5 a.m. and as late as midnight in the dining hall, which measured over 115 feet in length and could serve more than 600 guests at once. Originally, the inn would open for the season in late May or early June, usually with an opening ball. Eventually, to make more money, the inn remained open all year.
On the afternoon of Nov. 17, 1908, a fire broke out at the inn. Two men at the Incline noticed the fire first and rushed to the inn to sound the alarm. By the time they arrived, the fire was spreading rapidly. The manager of the hotel immediately had the 17 registered guests alerted and evacuated.
The fire spread rapidly with help from high winds whipping across the top of Lookout Mountain. The Lookout Mountain & Lula Lake Railroad Co. ran hoses from its station and six minutes after the alarm sounded was pouring water on the fire. Those efforts were in vain: The aged fire hoses burst when the pressure was turned up on the water line.
The fire spread and quickly became so big that it was visible to citizens in downtown Chattanooga. Although telephone service to the top of Lookout Mountain was out (the exchange was in the inn), word spread down the mountain quickly as the fire spread to nearby houses, buildings and trees. Many jumped in cars and drove up the mountain to see if they could assist, the incline being closed as its workers helped battle the blaze.
With the abundance of wood in the inn and the high winds on top of Lookout Mountain, the grand Lookout Inn was reduced to smoldering rubble in only two hours. Also destroyed were four nearby houses and a small store. The fire blazed for several more hours into the night, as trees caught fire and spread to the sides of Lookout Mountain.
There were conflicting stories as to what started the fire. One theory was that exposed telephone wires caused it. An earlier account stated that the flues in the south side of the inn were the culprit.
Immediately there were calls to rebuild the inn, but nothing came of this. Today there are homes on the spot where the Lookout Inn stood, and it’s hard to imagine such a grand structure ever occupied the area.
Lookout Mountain remains a top tourist spot for visitors to the area, as well as locals. Many citizens now reside on top of the mountain, whereas a hundred years ago it was mainly a resort area. And the great Lookout Inn helped it become that. The inn is gone, but Lookout Mountain remains a great presence over Chattanooga, and the memories of the inn that once stood near the end of the mountain remain with Chattanooga and its colorful history.
Steven Cox has been the Special Collections librarian and university archivist at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga since 2001. He is an associate professor, and he is president of the Society of Tennessee Archivists. This article appeared in Volume 11, No. 2 of the Chattanooga Regional Historical Journal.