Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Long Goodbye to The Wonderland

I've posted about the Wonderland Hotel before. And as I get ready to head off for another vacation, I felt like putting up a few more photographs of the old Wonderland--a photographic record of the place as it falls into the Earth.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was cobbled together from various undeveloped and developed tracts of land. In several cases, entire communities had to be bought out and moved (Cades Cove and Cataloochee). In Elkmont, close to what is now the border between the Park and the city of Gatlinburg was a group of vacation homes and a hotel called The Wonderland. The Park Service worked out a deal whereby the owners of the cottages could keep using them until such time as the original owners died off. This meant that some of the vacation homes were in use up until the 1990s. You can still see these homes in the Elkmont area of the park. Some of them have collapsed, some are decrepit, but others are in amazingly good shape.

The Wonderland was an old-style wilderness experience hotel. Much like some of the hotels in our western National Parks. It wasn't grand on any level, but it was in a beautiful location and had decent, if rustic, amenities. Built around 1911, it was composed of mainly local materials and was a huge, rambling structure.

Upon learning that the hotel's concession would be terminated, my wife and I decided to rush up to the park to stay a couple of nights before the contract was ended and The Wonderland closed, possibly forever. When we stayed there, the concessionaires were taking a fatalistic attitude toward the lodgings. They provided only the most base of service, so parts of the hotel that had been historically open and operating were shuttered and dark. But the main sitting rooms were in order and the sleeping rooms and shared bathrooms were as I'd imagined them to be.

The beds were huge and soft. We pretty much vanished into the mattress in the room we had rented. Outside our window were hemlocks and poplars and it was strange and wonderful to be staying in a hotel completely surrounded by protected National Parkland. We had a good time at the place, even knowing that it was soon to be closed up, possibly for good.

And now, of course, the Wonderland it almost no more. Much of it collapsed in the past few years, and only about half the old structure is still standing. You can walk up the old staircase from what was, at one time, a spur railroad and is now a park road. Carole and I walked up those steps with our luggage once upon a time.

These days, the old parking lot and yards are filled with young hemlock trees that have been chemically treated to resist the infestation that's sending their species to extinction. You can stand around and look at hearths that once stood in large sitting rooms. One can walk up to the decrepit hotel rooms and look in to see the place slowly going to rot. On one level it's kind of sad. But on the other hand it's very good to see the land reverting to its natural state. All around the park you are aware of what happens to land that is unprotected and open to the exploitation that humans call "progress". It isn't progress at all, really, to see the trees sawn down and the earth heaved up, hills cut down to fill streambeds, buildings slapped up, and native flora and fauna trampled underfoot.

So I don't really mourn the slow destruction by neglect of The Wonderland.

Let the moisture and insects and bacteria do their work.

Let gravity pull down the weakening timbers.

Let birds raise their generations in its rubble and angles.

Let the wasps and hornets anchor their homes along the old hotel as we say our last, long goodbyes.

Our own goodbye for about a week--off we go with our Casita to the mountains of southwestern Virginia.

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