A history of the Balsam Mountain Inn
The Balsam Mountain Inn is perched at 3,500 ft. elevation in the community of Balsam, NC, in a gap dividing the towering Plott Balsam and Richland Balsam mountain ranges.
Balsam Gap was once home to the highest passenger rail station in the east, and guests at the inn – then called the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel – took day trips to nearby peaks, some of which rise to over 6,000 feet. Our guests still enjoy such trips – even more so perhaps – by hiking the nearby North Carolina Mountains-to-Sea Trail, or by driving the spectacular Blue Ridge Parkway, which has an entrance a half-mile from the inn and reaches some of its highest, wildest and most beautiful points nearby.
Joseph Kenney and Walter Christy, brothers-in-law from Athens, GA, operated a boarding house in Balsam at the turn of the last century. They led hunting and fishing excursions, and built a name for their business by serving wonderful food. In 1905 they began construction of a 100-room hotel, and opened our inn in 1908. The inn’s corridors were built extra-wide to accommodate the steamer trunks of extended-stay summertime guests, almost all of whom arrived by rail.
With its 100-foot porches, spectacular views and hearty, abundant cuisine, the inn soon came to be known as the “Grand Old Lady of Balsam”. There were many similar resort hotels in the North Carolina mountains 100 years ago, but by the middle of the 20th century many had succumbed to fire or disrepair. The roadside motels of that era have a charm all their own, but their appearance made life hard for grand inns like ours. Somehow, the Balsam Mountain Inn survived.
With the passing of passenger rail service in 1949, and the construction of US 23/74 through Balsam Gap, the little community of Balsam became a backwater. The inn remained – a 42,000 square foot anomaly which was unknown even to some longtime locals.
The inn actually continued to serve a seasonal clientele until the late 80’s, but had been empty and was quickly disintegrating when Merrily Teasley, an experienced East Tennessee innkeeper and preservationist, spotted it by chance on a hiking excursion. A friend drove her through Balsam on a brightly moonlit night, and the inn glimmered like a ghost through the trees on the ridge above. It was love at first sight. Teasley bought the structure and began an extensive restoration. The inn is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the few buildings of its grandeur left in North Carolina, and Teasley restored it according to guidelines set forth by the US Department of the Interior.
The structure was re-wired and re-plumbed, and private baths were added throughout (community baths had sufficed before). The inn’s big kitchen was renovated, an intricate sprinkler system was constructed, and for the first time in its life the inn was heated. When a dormitory at nearby Western Carolina University was renovated, Teasley trucked away all of its vintage cast iron radiators, restored them, and hooked them up to the inn’s brand new boiler.
The restoration is a fount of interesting stories. For example, Jerry Lane, a craftsman from Tennessee, sanded over 30,000 square feet of heart pine floors with a two-handed belt sander – a task for which he’d been well prepared by a multiple-hitch tour as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam. Jerry couldn’t hear well, and was used to having his arms vibrated violently for hours on end.
There is no municipal water and sewer in Balsam, so adding private baths required an enormous drain field that covers most of the hillside in front and an additional wooded hillside to the rear, along with a considerable pump station. It also requires, much to our alarm and our guests’, the spring-loaded faucets in our bathrooms.
In 1991 the first two floors opened, offering 34 guest rooms. In 1996 the third floor, which hadn’t been used in many decades, opened, adding 16 more rooms.
The third floor wasn’t part of Kenney and Christy’s early plans. After the first two floors were framed in, the builders gazed up from the vantage point of the railroad depot below and agreed that the inn seemed to have no roof at all, and was generally unimpressive. So up went an additional floor, along with the intricate Mansard roofline. Voila. Impressive. Unfortunately the inn’s water system was gravity-fed, and rarely had enough oomph to push water up to the top floor. So after the Great Depression the floor was rarely used, and was in much worse shape when restoration time rolled around.