Life on Lookout Mountain (Summer 2014)

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text and photography by JOHN DERSHAM

The Lookout Mountain region suffered a historic loss on March 1. Our icon in Mentone, Ala., the Mentone Springs Hotel, burned to the ground. In addition, White Elephant Antiques, a former annex to the hotel once used as a health spa, burned as well.

The hotel was the last Victorian-era wooden hotel left in Alabama. For those of us in the tourism industry, it was our brand in Mentone. When anyone who has visited Mentone thinks about our quaint mountain village high atop Lookout Mountain, the hotel is what they picture. From a financial  standpoint, the hotel was a 10-room bed and breakfast that also included two restaurants. The revenue will be missed in the Mentone community, but the sociological impact will be much greater.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Mentone and all of Lookout Mountain are full of wonderful destinations, from the specialty shops and galleries hosting works from the area’s many artists to the comfortable bed and breakfasts filled with unique ambiance. There are restaurants serving the region’s traditional recipes made from local ingredients. We have state and national parks on the mountain, and a 93-mile scenic byway called the Lookout Mountain Parkway running from the top of the mountain at Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tenn., past Rock City to Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia, through Mentone, DeSoto State Park, Little River Canyon National Preserve and Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, Ala., where the mountain begins (or ends, depending on your viewpoint). The entire drive is filled with fun places to visit.

Lookout Mountain has a rich history of being a tourism destination. The history of tourism in the Lookout Mountain region, for all practical purposes, begins with the Mentone Springs Hotel and a couple other hotels built on Lookout Mountain not long after the Civil War. During the Civil War, thousands of soldiers passed through our area. They saw amazing natural beauty at May’s Gulf (Little River Canyon), DeSoto Falls and Cloudland Canyon, in caves and at other word-of-mouth locations scattered around the region.

In the summer of 1863, thousands of Union soldiers were camped in Wills Valley in and around Winston Place (now a bed and breakfast) in Valley Head, Ala. Many of those soldiers went to battle at Chickamauga in Georgia, but because they had a lot of time on their hands while in our area, they journeyed up Lookout Mountain and visited our scenic wonders. After the war, these soldiers carried their stories home with them, and gradually a tourism industry on Lookout Mountain began.
In Mentone, it was the mineral springs that drew attention, and visitors began to come for the supposedly healing effects of the springs located on the property where the Mentone Springs Hotel eventually was built.

In 1884, Dr. Frank Caldwell, who was from Pennsylvania and credited the springs with helping cure his ailments, was staying with John Mason, who lived in the area. Caldwell decided to build the hotel for people who were visiting the springs. When the hotel was complete and there was no name for it, John Mason’s daughter Alice retold a story she had read about Queen Victoria visiting a place in France called Menton (French spelling), meaning “musical mountain spring.” The hotel was named the Mentone Springs Hotel, and around it grew the settlement of Mentone.

It did not take long for word to spread about this paradise called Lookout Mountain. Soon summer camps started speckling the top of the mountain. The word was out in Birmingham and Huntsville, Ala., Atlanta and Chattanooga that this was a great environment for youth education and recreation… and in the summer it was cooler.

Some brochures and advertising from the 1920s to 1970s claimed the temperature on Lookout Mountain never exceeds 85 degrees. Though this is not true, it usually does remain 3 to 5 degrees cooler on the mountain than in the valley.

Soon vacation cabins were being built by city dwellers who wanted a scenic, relaxing getaway to a cooler place. The culture of the mountain has remained the same as visitors continue to come here to relax in a rental cabin, bed and breakfast or campground. They enjoy the scenic beauty and recreational activities including hiking, canoeing, rappelling, caving and, of course, eating and shopping in unique settings.
At the time of this writing, the future use of the property where the Mentone Springs Hotel stood has not been decided, but knowing the tourism culture of our area, I am sure it will be in line with our rich heritage.

John Dersham is president/CEO of DeKalb Tourism.
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