Scenes from the abandoned "Wonderland Club" in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. (Photographs by Jordan Liles)
Some might see this abandoned resort as just a bunch of falling-down buildings. Jordan Liles saw a way to connect to the past.
The 30-year-old Memphis native-turned-Brooklynite trekked into Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a quest to find the site of the once vibrant summer neighborhood and hotel known as the Wonderland Club.
In May, to get to the hidden spot, Liles followed an unmarked gravel road through thick forest up a hill to where a staircase covered in grass leads to the front of the site.
Wonderland was built in 1912 to accommodate guests heading by train up the mountain. It closed in 1992. Strangely, the abandoned neighborhood, located near Gatlinburg, Tenn., is adjacent to Elkmont, the busiest campground in the park.
The photographer first stumbled upon the abandoned site while vacationing in a nearby cabin in 2009. He saw the Wonderland Hotel, and as he kept walking, discovered a hidden neighborhood of summer houses, untouched for decades.
“The Wonderland Club houses ... are the hidden treasure and are something cool to see in the area,” he told Yahoo News, adding, “I have a tremendous amount of respect for the abandoned places I visit. I love discovering the history of abandoned buildings.”
The traveler vowed to return — with a better camera — before the structures completely fell apart.
“It’s a challenge to unravel the mystery of what the abandoned place used to do and what their purpose was,” Liles told Yahoo News.
In a video of his experience, Liles does a walk-through of some of the buildings. At the 18:13 mark, he includes photos from the past that stand in stark contrast to the how the area looks today.
A once burbling fountain is filled with weeds. The front staircase, which looked to be a picturesque gathering spot for guests, is mostly an overgrown hill. The hotel fireplace, once the focus of a main room, is now not much more than a pile of bricks.
Blogger Linda Blakeman, 68, writes that she discovered the Wonderland Hotel on Memorial Day weekend in 1990, and she was not impressed. “At my first sight of the Wonderland Hotel, my heart just sank,” she writes. “I wondered what I had gotten us into. The building was very old, with paint peeling and a tarp on part of the porch roof, apparently to keep rain out.”
But after exploring the lodgings, she changed her mind. “We found ourselves falling in love with the place. It was quaint. It was charming. It was peaceful. It was in a beautiful setting, and there was even the sound of a cascading river wafting up through the trees.”
In 2006, 19 of the 74 buildings left standing in the area, including the Appalachian Clubhouse, were designated for preservation bythe National Park Service as part of the Elkmont Historic District.
Although historic materials were taken from the Wonderland site for the park archives, none of the Wonderland Club buildings was included as they were considered beyond repair, according to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park representative Dana Soehn.
Soon, all that will be left are people’s memories — and pictures.