Tennessee Mountain Stories

The Imperial Hotel

Today’s historic house is a public house so it’s a little different than the others we’ve explored in this series.  The Imperial Hotel was built by General John T. Wilder in Monterey in 1909.

During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Monterey, Tennessee enjoyed a thriving resort business.  After the railroad came through town in 1890, people began to ride the rails to this mountain top town where they enjoyed mineral spring waters, world-class dining and beautiful gardens manicured just for the tourists.  I would be very interested to learn what originally prompted these tourists but it’s not hard to imagine the rustic beauty of the mountain as well as the cooler temperatures those dwelling in the valley towns would have enjoyed. 

In those days, it wasn’t easy to get to Monterey, especially from the East.  There was no direct East-to-West train service.  Before The Civil War, the trip from Knoxville to Nashville went via Chattanooga.  Then, during the late 1800’s the Tennessee Central Railroad aspired to connect the two major Tennessee cities directly.  Unfortunately, myriad problems conspired to prevent the direct connection.  So, East Tennesseans desiring to relax in Monterey’s luxurious accommodations would have to ride to Harriman and change trains for the final leg to Monterey.  Interestingly, even people headed on to Nashville or other points west would have to make the same connection. 

The transportation difficulties seem to have had little effect on the tourists who came to Monterey in sufficient numbers to support four hotels in addition to The Imperial.  I say “in addition” because The Imperial never intended to compete with the other hotels in their resort business.  This beautiful brick hotel was strictly a railroad hotel.  She was intended to accommodate the train passenger staying over in Monterey, or the business man coming to town on the train.     

The Imperial had thirty rooms in three floors; there was running water and indoor plumbing which were nearly unknown among the mountain people living around Monterey in that day.  There was a dining room that was well-known for the food served.  According to this blog article by W. Calvin Dickinson & Charlene McClain , “One newspaper editor lauded it as o­ne of the best hotels between Nashville and Knoxville.” 

This was a heyday for the little town self-styled, “where hilltops kiss the sky”.  As automobiles became the more prevalent mode of transportation, tourists had many more choices where to spend their leisure days.  Monterey’s resort community began to decline.  Then in 1958 passenger train service was discontinued to the town.  Many of the resort hotels had already closed or converted to other uses for their rooms.  The Imperial closed shortly after the passenger service ended.

A chapter closed for The Imperial, but thankfully, the building still stands.  Left vacant for many years, it seems nearly miraculous that she is still there since all of those resort hotels have succumbed to the ravages of time or the spirit of progress.  Then, in 1997 a gentleman bought The Imperial with a vision to renovate and restore it and use it as a bed and breakfast as well as an event venue.  A whopping $700,000 was invested in the renovation.  Unfortunately, the building is again empty due to a difference in priorities of the city planners.  A metal-clad museum was constructed next door and the rear exit stairs of the hotel were removed.  That simple change threw the building out of fire code compliance and prevents its use by the public.      There is a  website here where you can register to show your support of the hotel if you would like to.  I have tried to reach the current owner in hopes of sharing some pictures of the renovation but have been unsuccessful.  If I am able to reach him, I will certainly post an update.

I am thrilled that at the very least this historic building has been preserved and may again be open for the public to enjoy.