Ask Hamilton – The Lookout Inn

A Luxury Hotel on Lookout


(Above) A view of the Inn’s wing and wrap-around porch, circa 1890


Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga Public Library and Picnooga/Chattanooga Historical Society

Dear Hamilton, 

I know that many “Gilded Age” hotels used to sit atop Lookout Mountain but are no longer there. Is it true that there was once a luxury hotel at the top of the Incline Railway? What’s the story there?


Retrospective Resident


a brochure for the lookout inn circa 1900

A brochure for the Inn advertising its beauty and amenities, circa 1900


Dear Retrospective Resident,

You’re correct on both counts! Nearly half a dozen hotels on Lookout Mountain that were built in the latter half of the 19th century or the early 20th no longer operate, be it due to fire, demolition, or repurposing (for example, did you know that Covenant College’s grand tower on the top of Lookout was originally the Lookout Mountain Hotel, also known as the “Castle in the Clouds”?). And yes, there was once a hotel at the top of the beloved Incline No. 2 – a hotel called The Lookout Inn.

“Burning of Lookout Inn” color postcard from 1909 


Lookout Mountain has always been a landmark of history and beauty in Chattanooga, and given its accessibility via the Lookout Mountain Railway beginning in the 1880s, it only made sense for businessmen in hospitality at the time to begin developing hotels on prime, scenic real estate. The inaugural hotel on Lookout, the first Lookout Mountain Hotel was built in 1857 and was eventually used as a Civil War hospital before burning down just a few years later (the second iteration of the Lookout Mountain Hotel wouldn’t be built until 1928). In the mid-1880s, the McCullough Hotel and the Point Hotel were established on the mountain – both of which were demolished within half a century of opening. While both hotels had their own appeal, a truly grand and luxurious resort was something that Lookout Mountain lacked. Enter: The Lookout Inn. 

Civil War veteran Colonel R.L. Watkins was a business leader in developing Lookout Mountain, and he along with a group of other prominent businessmen commissioned Chattanooga architect Samuel McClung Patton to spearhead this sprawling, lavish new hotel. Construction began in 1887, and the hotel formally opened in the summer of 1890. The Lookout Inn was situated on the eastern brow of the mountain, towering just above the top station of Incline No. 2, which provided easy access for visitors traveling up and down the mountain. 

Over 365 feet in length and four stories high, The Lookout Inn featured a vast ballroom, a fine dining room, sandstone arches, wrap-around verandas, and a tower that gave guests a lofty observation spot from which to view the valley below. An early hotel brochure marketed the locale as the “Great Historic Health and Pleasure Resort of the South” and boasted of its electrical and gas lighting, elevators, steam heating, and plumbing and drainage systems that were “the most perfect that modern science has been able to produce.” 

Flyer for Lookout Inn

The Inn was initially met with great popularity and opened for the season with a grand ball each year. Prominent guests who were purported to have stayed at the Inn included Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and even European royal Prince Henry of Prussia. The popularity of the Inn did result in a bitter rivalry with the aforementioned Point Hotel, due to some lingering resentment over land ownership on the mountain. Point Hotel was built just below the property of a Mrs. Colonel James Whiteside, a widow who was protective over her late husband’s estate and disapproved of the nearby hotel. In fact, Mrs. Whiteside would go on to invest in The Lookout Inn, clashing so greatly with the Point Hotel that she even had the steps leading to Lookout Point removed so that the Point Hotel guests could no longer easily walk to the scenic summit. 

Unfortunately, The Lookout Inn was often in financial trouble, and a little over 10 years after opening, the hotel began staying open year-round to bring in more money, as well as underwent renovation to add an on-site billiard hall and casino. Management of the Inn was also taken over by Sam Read, operator of The Read House downtown. 

Beautiful as it may have been, the story of The Lookout Inn sadly ends in a blaze. Just as the RMS Titanic had claimed to be “unsinkable,” so The Lookout Inn claimed to be fireproof; a windy evening in November of 1908, however, proved that it was not. Though everyone in the hotel was successfully evacuated, the successes ended there. No one on the mountain was able to call for help, as the telephone exchange was inside the burning hotel. The old fire hoses brought from the station burst when high-pressure water was pumped through them. In only two hours, the hotel had burned to the ground, along with four nearby houses, a store, and sections of the forest. No official cause of the fire was ever determined – while some blame a faulty flue, others claimed that exposed telephone wires were the culprit. 

Despite the popularity of the hotel, it had been pending sale at the time of the fire and was never rebuilt. It really is a shame, given how few Gilded Age hotels still remain in operation across the country. A historical loss, to be sure.

Hope this helps!

Hamilton Bush

Resident History Hound

Chattanooga, Tennessee

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