Upland Chronicles: Riverside Hotel has reached its final days

Jun. 02, 2013 @ 11:22 PM

Like an aging dowager, the Riverside Motor Lodge has been a part of Gatlinburg for longer than most people can remember. However, on May 30 the oldest remaining lodging place in the tourist town closed.

What became the Riverside Motor Lodge began in 1925 when Stephen “Uncle Steve” Whaley built the Riverside Hotel. At the time it opened the only other hotel in Gatlinburg was the Mountain View, which was built by Andy Huff in 1916.

Stephen Whaley and wife Pearlie Trentham Whaley purchased 75 acres of land from Richard R. Ogle in 1917. The property lay along the west fork of the Little Pigeon River. At first Whaley farmed the land. When visitors began driving through Gatlinburg on their way to the Smoky Mountains, Pearlie Whaley sold home-made ice cream out of a small shack beside the dusty road.

The children of Stephen and Pearlie Whaley were Charles Ray, Austin E., Bruce, Beulah (Clabo), Blanche (Cooper) and Mary Evelyn (Trotter).

In 1925 the first Riverside Hotel was built with 20 rooms. Later another building called the Annex was added that provided 20 additional rooms. Each room contained a water pitcher and bowl and one bathroom was located at the end of the hall.

It began as a boarding house, which faced the river. When first opened, lodging was $35 per month including meals.

Bountiful food was served family style in the big dining room. Meals were announced by the ringing of a dinner bell. Enormous platters and bowls of home-style food were placed on the tables and the guests helped themselves.

Austin E. “Dick” Whaley joined his father in 1932 and began managing the property. Much to the chagrin of returning guests, Dick increased prices to 75 cents per day for lodging and an additional 75 cents for meals.

However the establishment continued to flourish and in 1937 father Stephen together with his son Dick built the New Riverside Hotel. By this time the old river road had been replaced by a new street (now called the Parkway) that became highway 441. Therefore the new building faced the new road.

Dick Whaley managed the hotel until 1941, when he sold his interest to his father and built the Greystone Hotel. At this time another son, Bruce Whaley, took over manager duties.

Known affectionately throughout Gatlinburg as Uncle Steve, the founder of the Riverside Hotel possessed a dry wit. Due to the fact that he did not have an opportunity to receive an education, he jokingly told visitors that he was a graduate of Bear Pen Hollow University.

Along with Isaac Maples and Andy Huff, Uncle Steve gave generously to the Phi Beta Phi Fraternity in order for the fraternity to purchase property in which to build a school.

Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who wrote syndicated columns for Scripps-Howard was an occasional guest at the Riverside. To keep from offending Whaley or Andy Huff, Pyle took turns staying between the Mountain View and the Riverside.

In a column written in 1940 Pyle told the often repeated story of Uncle Steve’s operation. He wrote, “They tell how he got appendicitis a few years ago and went to Knoxville to be operated on. At the hospital they took down his financial history before operating. They asked what he did and he said he worked for an old widow woman over in Gatlinburg who ran a boarding house. Didn’t get nothing for it just worked for room and board. A price in accordance was agreed upon for the operation.

“But when Uncle Steve began to convalesce the doctors begin to be flabbergasted. For here came a stream of the most astonishing visitors to see this poor old man-Knoxville hotel managers, bank presidents, big politicians, land owners, government officials. The doctors began to smell a mouse, and then they really investigated. But it was too late. He had already paid the bill.”

After James Tinsley “Jim” Trotter served in the U.S. Army during World War ll, he joined his brother-in-law Bruce Whaley. Jim married Bruce’s youngest sister, Mary Evelyn “Bo,” prior to leaving for the Army. Together Bruce as managing director and Jim as manager operated the Riverside for two decades until they sold it after they built the River Terrace Motel.

A renovation in the early 1950s included a facade featuring stone columns designed by innovative Gatlinburg architect Hubert Bebb.

During its heyday, the Riverside served as host to well-known business and civic leaders, politicians and entertainers. Frank G. Clement often stayed there while serving as governor of Tennessee, as did Buford Ellington. Several governors from various parts of the nation stayed at the Riverside in 1951 during the 43rd annual Governor’s Conference.

Warner Von Braun, famous rocket scientist known as the Rocket Man, was a guest at the Riverside while vacationing in Gatlinburg. Renowned national park naturalist Arthur Stupka presented illustrated lectures there as well as the Mountain View, Greystone and Gatlinburg Inn.

Jerry W. Ogle purchased the Riverside in 1971. Jerry died in 1995 and since that time his widow Linda Nastasi Ogle has owned the business.

Dignitaries and guests from far and near have memories to cherish of the Riverside Hotel. However there are those who worked there along with their families who possess an incomparable sentimental attachment to the storied place.

On a personal note, some of my fondest childhood memories involve the Riverside Hotel, where my beloved grandmother Lela Sims (who my siblings and I called Mimi) worked as the pastry cook for many years.

I still remember the friendly waitresses, some who were working their way through school, serving her light biscuits at breakfast, mouth-watering cornbread muffins at lunch and her famous yeast rolls, piping hot out of the oven, at dinner.

Other reminisces include pies topped with six-inch-high meringue, fruit cobblers with golden-brown crust, three-layer cakes and old-fashioned shortcakes served with fresh strawberries and hand-whipped cream. All of which was served on fine Syracuse Bone China.

Also, I recall long-time employees such as Nell Fry who was the salad lady, cooks, bellhops, desk clerks, dishwashers and housekeepers along with various members of the Whaley and Trotter families all working together and sharing every-day experiences of life. Memoires that tearing down the building cannot erase.

After years of additions, cosmetic updates and encroachment, most would agree that it was time for the landmark to go. But it is never easy to see something in which you have a special attachment come to an end.

Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County Historian. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.