It’s no secret that Northeast Tennessee features some of the most amazing natural beauty in the world. And among the picturesque mountains along the eastern edge of the state, perhaps none is more magical and memorable than Roan Mountain in Carter County.
One of the first people to take note of this was Union General John Wilder in the 1880s. Just a few years before, he’d commanded “Wilder’s Lightning Brigade” in the Civil War. He was quick-witted and extremely intelligent, not to mention an inventor, expert in hydraulics, and foundry owner. And when he laid eyes on Roan Mountain, he decided to add another title to his resume: Hotel Entrepreneur.
Originally from New York, Wilder had settled in Tennessee after the war. He quickly saw the strategic advantage of nearby Johnson City as a railroad junction, and with the nearby Cranberry Mines, he planned to establish the area as a center of iron and steel manufacturing. He built the Carnegie Furnace and established the Carnegie Land Company (which explains the Carnegie Hotel and Andrew Carnegie’s connection to East Tennessee). But standing at the top of Roan Mountain in 1884, Wilder realized that scenic beauty was a “mine” of a different sort. He envisioned a hotel that would seamlessly combine creature comforts with the serenity that only picturesque views of Northeast Tennessee could provide.
It would be called the Cloudland Hotel, and Wilder envisioned patrons from across the country praising its unique offerings. In fact, an advertisement in a local paper read:
Come up out of the sultry plains
to the land of the sky.
Magnificent views above the clouds
where the rivers are born.
The hotel is the highest human habitation
east of the Rocky Mountains.
But the most peculiar aspect of the hotel was that it straddled the Tennessee-North Carolina line, which doesn’t seem that special until you consider that, at the time, North Carolina was a “dry” state. Tennessee was not.
So guests who wanted to enjoy whiskey, brandy, or wine, could stay on the Tennessee side of the hotel, careful not to step across the “state line” that was drawn on the floor through the main dining room. Stories spread about local sheriffs who waited on drinkers to stumble across the line (into North Carolina), ready to take the “lawbreakers” into custody. But for the most part, the unique attribute proved popular among guests.
In the years to come, Wilder’s ill health (and a glut in the iron market) made operations difficult and non-profitable…and by 1910, the Cloudland Hotel was closed. Soon thereafter, Wilder was dead, the building dismantled, and the property was sold to the US Forestry Service. All that’s left atop Roan Mountain is the historic marker, but the legacy of the Cloudland Hotel lives on throughout Carter County. That’s because the lumber that once secured the structure of the hotel was re-sold to local homebuilders, and numerous houses in the area are still held upright by remnants of the “Hotel in the Sky.”