Caesars Head Hotel

buildings historic


Solomon Jones, tradition says, followed a pig's trail to find the easiest route up the mountain to Caesars Head. Then it took the master builder eight years to complete the 5-mile link between Greenville and Transylvania County, N.C. But the result, the Jones Gap Road, completed in 1848, opened new possibilities for entrepreneurs and vacationers.

The "head," a great granite outcropping of the Blue Ridge chain, was already a landmark, discovered by British surveyors in the 1730s. But its name was a mystery. Some insisted it derived from the huge rock's resemblance to Julius Caesar's profile. (What resemblance?) Others rejected that imaginative claim and suggested that it commemorated a lost dog named Caesar. Modern linguists guess that it may be a corruption of the Cherokee word for leader, "sachem."

When the road was finished, Col. Benjamin Hagood of Pickens County, a large landowner and former state senator, purchased about 2,400 acres of the surrounding land, including the "head" and a nearby mineral spring, and by 1851 had built a large summer "cottage," soon to be a hotel, to take advantage of the area's cool breezes, moderate temperatures and breathtaking views.

Soon the colonel (the title was bestowed by the militia), was welcoming friends from the low country to share the panorama and climate. In addition to the hotel, "a staunch, heavy-built house of the old pattern with hearths made for log fires," he also constructed several cottages for friends with large families.

A visitor in 1859 said the hotel, a few yards back from the precipice, was one where "eating and sleeping arrangements are unsurpassed." Visitors dined on "fried chicken, delicious mutton and speckled trout from nearby streams," prepared by slaves who accompanied Hagood and his family. On cool July evenings guests lingered before blazing fires before proceeding to their bedrooms, candles in hand, to wrap themselves luxuriously in blankets.

The hotel evidently closed in 1862. Hagood, then in his mid-70s, died in 1865, and soon afterward his third daughter, Eliza, and her husband, Dr. Francis Miles, the first physician in Pickens County and a devout Baptist, became owners. By 1876 (if not before — the record is unclear) the Mileses had reopened the hotel as a health resort. An 1879 advertisement reads, "This elevated situation, 4,500 feet above the level of the sea" ( a thousand- foot exaggeration), "presents all that could be desired — for all diseases of the Throat, Lungs, Hay Fever, Malarial affectations, the climate is unequaled. For the overworked and debilitated it is an Elixir of Life."

It was also unequaled for the "tortuous" road leading to it, and the interminable trip from Greenville up the precipitous side of the mountain. Even after the road was "improved" in the 1870s, it took between five and six hours to reach Caesars Head by hack (at a cost of $3.50 each way — $77 in modern currency) from Marietta, about 16 miles away. But travelers winding in and out and always up, "find rich compensation for the rigors of travel in the bracing atmosphere and boundless views."

About 1880, Dr. Miles sold the hotel to E.M. Seabrook of Charleston, who improved and enlarged the inn and cottages to a capacity of 200. Seabrook's advertisements emphasized the healing properties of the "Freestone and Chalybeate Springs" as well as amenities including a post office, billiards, nine-pins, shaded walks and a resident physician. While Seabrook was a successful proprietor, making money each season, he could not pay off the mortgage, and by 1885 Dr. and Mrs. Miles had reclaimed the property.

In 1886, Miles boasted that "the society of Caesars Head can rank with the best of the civilized world." Certainly he was among the most hospitable hosts — "a model innkeeper for twenty years" said a visitor to the "comfortable primitive hotel" in 1895 — who welcomed guests himself, endlessly answered the same questions, and was always serene.

But he was also sick, depressed and worried. He and his wife were childless, aging and owed about $1,500 to her brother; running a summer resort was hard work even for a healthy young man. So they offered to deed the property to nephews and nieces in exchange for $2,400 (they had been offered $20,000 for the property) and a lifelong annuity to provide a modest income. But the deal failed, and in the summer of 1897 they reluctantly decided to look elsewhere for future security.

After a month's negotiations, in late September, Furman University's trustees announced that the Mileses had given the entire tract, including the hotel, furniture, outbuildings and cottages, to the university in exchange for an annuity of $800 a year and free hotel room and board for the rest of their lives. Dr. Miles died in 1903, but Mrs. Miles lived on until she was 94 in 1918.

While Furman owned and managed the hotel, its amusements included distinctly non-Baptist delights like pool and billiards, bowling, square dancing and bridge, but the property itself was becoming a bit down at the heels. Then, in August 1924, local newspapers headlined the story that the school had sold the hotel and more than 2,200 surrounding acres for "a price exceeding $50,000" to a development company headed by Samuel R. Zimmerman.

The hotel was once again improved, but Zimmerman's main interest was selling lots on the mountain top to create a summer colony. Richard Arrington, Fred Symmes and J.E. Sirrine were among the first buyers. During the depression, the developer was caught in a cash crunch and the company failed, yet the hotel continued operating. In 1946, the Marchant brothers, Pete and Tom, bought the property and added a swimming pool, covered pavilion, dairy bar and tennis courts.

On summer afternoons in the early 1950s, guests, most of whom had been coming to the Head for years and were in their 50s and 60s, rocked and gossiped on the 50 or so veranda chairs. It was an old fashioned resort, but the cost — $27 a week for room and board — couldn't be beat.

The season always ended on Labor Day Weekend, although Furman's Women's College annually scheduled a leadership retreat immediately afterward. Soon after the girls left in September 1954, the hotel caught fire, perhaps from faulty wiring, and burned to the ground. It was a total loss.

Caesars Head continues as an attraction — it still has the cooling breezes and grand views that aristocratic guests admired a century and a half ago — but its gracious hotel has given way to a state park open to all as a part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.

Judith Bainbridge