The Historic Bridges Hotel

Last Updated 2/27/2024

By Esther Nunley

Original Publish Date: April 9, 2022

The historic Bridges Hotel was the “news center” of the newly formed Athens community where stage coaches arrived daily bringing mail, visitors, and other cargo and the Robert E. Lee Hotel was the “hub of the city” where political and social gatherings took place. Today the Robert E. Lee Hotel remains on the former site of the Bridges Hotel.

Drawings of both hotels can be found featured on the City of Athens Bicentennial poster. Copies of the poster are available at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum. The 16 X 24 is $20 while the 11 X 17 is $10.

The Bridges Hotel was built in 1830 by Cleage and Crutchfield, a popular firm that constructed brick buildings and homes of the area during that time. The hotel served as a stopping point on a mail line with stagecoaches bringing along travelers who needed a meal and a room. There was a livery stable for horses to be refreshed and a small building in the back that served as slave quarters.

The arrival of the stagecoach brought much excitement as children would run to watch when the driver would sound a horn on his approach and crack a loud whip for a quick departure. Everyone could hear the distant thunder of multiple hooves over rough dirt roads in plenty of time to be ready for its arrival. The coach stirred up a cloud of dust so thick that the driver couldn’t see the road, he just knew it was there. The stage was pulled by a team of six horses commanded by the driver that was usually a man that was upheld in high esteem by others, as he brought passengers safely to their destinations and delivered the mail on time.

George Washington Brown was one of those stagecoach drivers. For eight years he brought the mail and passengers to the Bridges Hotel on his route from Chattanooga to Knoxville. He also served in the Confederate Army. Brown was interviewed by the Chattanooga News in 1925 when he was 103 years old. He died a few months later in January of 1926. The last twenty years he had lived in Lenoir City but most of his life he lived in Athens. He had been married twice during his long life and had seventeen children. His second wife was still alive at the time of the interview.

Some of his stagecoach passengers were prominent citizens passing through or visiting Athens. Davy Crockett stopped on his way to Texas and Henry Clay drank at the bar while he was a candidate for President in 1844. President Jackson, known as “Old Hickory,” stopped and ate a meal he complimented on while on his way to Washington from Nashville. It was at this bar where men gathered to discuss politics and the events of the day before the Civil War. In February of 1865 the windows of this hotel were used by Union forces to protect the town against Confederate attack. General Sherman stayed one night while traveling to Knoxville to bring relief to General Burnside.

Brown lived on the family farm one and a half miles east of Athens.  When he was six years old his mother died while a captive of the Indians. He was picked up by them while he played in a wooded area near his home and held captive for eighteen months. While he lived with them, they taught him how to live their lifestyle and told him he would be a chief someday. His father offered a $900 reward for his return. The Indians had left him in the forest near Frog Mountain when his uncle found him and brought him home.

A monument on E. Madison Avenue by the Robert E. Lee Hotel documents that the Bridges Hotel was the temporary headquarters of Brigadier General John E Wool, United States Army during the volunteer removal phase of the Cherokee Indians in 1836-1837. The effort failed when most of them refused to leave their homeland voluntarily resulting in the forced removal in 1838. The Indians were herded together and held in camps while being moved west. One containment site was Fort Cass located from across the Hiwassee River from Calhoun in Charleston.

 An estimated 4,000 Cherokee died from a variety of issues, namely disease, hunger, exposure to the cold, along with some being killed by soldiers and others becoming so despondent they committed suicide. Death came either in a containment site or while enroute on the journey west known as the Trail of Tears.

In 1925, G.F. Lockmiller, president of the Citizens National Bank purchased the 95-year-old hotel for $34,000 and had it demolished to make room for a large modern hotel.  The building named the Robert E. Lee Hotel, for the Confederate General, was completed In September of 1926 at a cost of $200,000. It was more than a hotel it contained a large ballroom and had areas for small retail shops and a barber shop. Visitors came by bus through the active bus line passing through the city which also had a bus station at the corner of Main (E. Madison) and White Streets. There were many political and social events held there. Everything was bustling with commerce and there was promising industrial growth; the city was expanding.

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