Explorer and photographer Jordan Liles surveys the creepy site, which is nestled deep within the woodland of the Smoky Mountains. Residents abandoned the town approximately two decades ago now, and its buildings have lain empty and forgotten ever since. And as Liles peers through broken windows and collapsed walls, only the sounds of nature break the eerie silence.
Liles shares his passion for the camera with his hero: legendary filmmaker and actor Sir Charlie Chaplin. And while Liles is also a director, he’s perhaps known best for his photography of abandoned places. But the cameraman has received considerable media attention for his documentation of one particular off-road – and downright spooky – exploration.
And when it comes to abandoned locations in the U.S., there’s a whole host out there waiting to be stumbled upon. After all, America’s a large country steeped in history. As times change, too, places evolve – or sometimes, it seems, they end up getting left behind altogether. But what would provoke individuals, neighborhoods or even entire towns to just pick up sticks?
Well, it seems that financial decline is one of the prominent causes of this phenomenon. Some locales that lie abandoned today may have had prosperous beginnings, but changes in fortune have left them in degradation. For example, features of places that had once brought in tourists or businesses – such as mills or mines – may have become obsolete, leaving the towns shadows of their former selves.
Other sites may be abandoned for far more sinister reasons, however. Take, for instance, the infamous Lake Shawnee Amusement Park in West Virginia. In the 1920s the owners chose to build this attraction on an ancient indigenous burial ground – which, as it turned out, was a very bad idea. Six fairgoers reportedly died after the place opened, in fact, and it subsequently fell into disrepair. These days the only visitors to Lake Shawnee’s overgrown rides are those looking to get spooked on one of the Halloween tours that are conducted there.
Another particularly creepy abandoned location is the one in which photographer Jordan Liles found himself in 2013. The spooky site in question lies in the region of Elkmont, Tennessee, which is hidden deep within the woodlands of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Memphis native is no stranger to the Smokies; he spent 26 years living in the area, in fact, and still visits the park frequently in his downtime. And it was during one of his hiking expeditions that Liles happened upon a forgotten treasure.
Furthermore, Liles explains on his website how he stumbled upon the mysterious place. “About a mile up an unnamed gravel road inside [the] Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the back way into an abandoned neighborhood and hotel – some of which was originally constructed more than 100 years ago,” he has written.
But the ruins that Liles discovered bear little resemblance to the area’s glory days. The place isn’t as easily accessible as it once was, either, as the cameraman quickly found out on his visit. In fact, overgrown electrical equipment on the deserted path were the only indicators to the curious explorer that the site exists at all. And yet he persevered nevertheless, all the while documenting his adventure on film.
Liles’ 2013 footage begins with him walking along a deserted track. First, he approaches a dark shape among the trees, which appears as if the surrounding land has claimed it. A closer inspection of the form, however, reveals that it’s the remnants of a cabin. But any coziness that the structure may have once had has long since departed, and all that remains is an empty shell – one totally devoid of human life.
Then, when Liles gets even closer to the building, he sees shattered windows and pulled-up porch floorboards. And as a consequence, the cameraman isn’t sure if he wants to venture further. It’s not fear of the supernatural that’s keeping him from exploring inside, though, as creepy as the abandoned house may look; it’s the very real concern that the house could give way and bury him in rotting wood.
“I don’t really think I want to go in there,” Liles reveals in the video. “It looks like the kitchen’s on a slant, which means this property is not in very good condition.” That said, he does manage to get a glimpse of the cabin’s interior, which is complete with decaying shelves and toppled containers that litter the floor.
And yet the front of the property is even more chilling – perhaps due to the screen door that hangs open invitingly. But the loose planks and fallen logs quell any air of welcome, suggesting that the place is in fact not safe to enter. Liles glances through a broken window, and the room within is empty and bare.
The derelict building’s upper levels, meanwhile, are just as silent and deserted as the ground floor. Liles’ camera captures a lone mattress that has been abandoned in a bedroom, although a partly collapsed roof makes access to the area limited. Needless to say, the photographer isn’t willing to risk his life by investigating any further.
Next, Liles’ exploration takes him through the nearby trees and down a series of stone steps to another lonely abode. Peeking through a foreboding, open wooden door and into the darkness behind it, the filmmaker spots some signs of human habitation. Whoever may have once lived here, though, now seems to be long gone.
In particular, a washer and a dryer lie upturned and uncared for on the shattered floorboards. And persons unknown appear to have once used the barrel that Liles spots from the entrance as a makeshift table for now-rusty paint cans. Who knows how long it’s been since anyone called this place home or even stepped within its walls?
But in order to explore this abandoned town’s secrets further, Liles has to retrace his steps back to the gravel path. There, he finds another route, which is once again marked by long-forgotten electrical equipment. And yet keen-eyed adventurers may be able to spot another potential sign of life: a roof lurking among the distant trees.
Meanwhile, litter scattered around the obscure path serves as a reminder of how still this peculiar place is. Whether the refuse has been blown in from elsewhere with the wind or thrown away by a former resident is unclear. But either way, Liles continues on his mission, passing birthday decorations that have been left partially buried by fallen leaves.
“Up here on my left is another house,” Liles narrates as he continues along the path. “This one does have steps.” At the top of a short climb is the building to which Liles is referring, which is missing some of its walls. Yet while someone appears to have erected a transparent screen to replace the absent planks, that, too, is now torn and ragged.
However, the upside to this makeshift screen is that Liles can peer through it and get a glimpse inside the abandoned abode. A broken table is the only visible item that seems to be left from the home’s occupied days. It also appears that someone has removed the window and propped it against the wall – frame and all.
In order to get a better look inside, then, the photographer pushes past a tree that’s obscuring a side window. And from his new vantage point, he can see an interior living space and, beyond that, a veranda – both of which are barren of furniture and fixtures. It looks as if everything in this house has been stripped back to bare wood and loose planks, in fact; there aren’t even any doors to be seen.
Then, back on the trail again, Liles spots another three cabins in the distance. And it seems that at some point in the past, vandals may have broken into the nearest of these houses. The lock is smashed, after all, and the door sits wide open, revealing the building’s interior and finally allowing Liles to venture inside.
In fact, the house is one of the few in this ghost town that looks as though it may be stable enough for someone to enter. And so, conscious of possible timber rattlesnakes, Liles cautiously steps inside the vacant cabin’s hall. This abode retains more evidence of its previous life than the others, it seems, including some blinds that still hang from the windows.
What’s more, the house’s bathroom – which Liles locates behind him and to the left – actually boasts a shower curtain. And the blue and white floral material looks in relatively good condition – compared to the rust-speckled shower that it covers, at least. The door, on the other hand, has come off its hinges and is now propped up against a wall.
And the adjacent toilet – equipped with a ratty, blue seat cover – is in a similar state of disrepair. Considering that the building looks this creepy during the daytime, we daren’t imagine how spooky it would be to wander through these derelict rooms at night. The house certainly wouldn’t look out of place in a horror film, that’s for sure. The Cabin in the Woods, anyone?
Only birdsong and the hum of a nearby river breaks the stillness as Liles scales a hill towards another house. “Check that out,” he says, pointing his camera in the direction of the closest property. “The roof collapsed on this one, but it hasn’t fallen down yet.” However, it isn’t just the top of the building that appears to be suffering from neglect.
“The floorboards in these houses did not do well over time,” Liles elaborates as he approaches the structure. “We can peek through the window; it looks a little too dangerous to go in.” Where there aren’t gaping holes in the porch floor, you see, the wooden surface looks menacingly twisted and bent.
Meanwhile, what was once presumably the house’s main living space is now a crumbling mess of plaster that has tumbled from the walls. And huge patches of the ceiling have fallen away, too, revealing bare rafters underneath. Perhaps the broken pipe on the floor holds a clue to what may have caused such destruction.
Elsewhere, the property next door has a short stone path leading up to the building. Its porch has completely disappeared, however, and as a result, Liles wisely doesn’t risk clambering inside for a closer look. “No way I’m going in this one; this is all ripped up,” the cameraman explains in his commentary.
But before Liles can investigate another creepy cabin, something unusual attracts his attention. Specifically, the explorer is drawn to a lone TV antenna, which has been discarded in the forest. And whoever left the item there seems to have thrust the aerial into the ground among the trees like a strange totem pole. What purpose it serves, however, remains unknown.
Perhaps the antenna is part of the debris that was left behind by the inhabitants of the small building that Liles decides to explore next. And littered in the basement of this hut is a collection of objects that may hold the clues to its former function. By the looks of things, one of the owners may have used the structure as a workshop or storage shed in the past.
Liles glimpses the interior of the place from an open doorway before walking around the property for a better look. He then finds the peep hole that he’s searching for in the form of a slatted fence. And inside, an old wooden workbench houses a collection of paint cans, thinner and other do-it-yourself paraphernalia.
Yet, even from a distance, it’s obvious that the final house that Liles visits is in the worst condition. What little is left of the roof has grown a carpet of moss. And the rest has collapsed into the property, leaving the home’s insides vulnerable to the elements. In fact, the entire structure has suffered as a result.
For instance, the abode’s walls are noticeably warped, while its entranceway has similarly been squashed out of shape. The door itself, meanwhile, has been ripped off its hinges and now lies lifelessly on the ground, revealing a mass of broken wood inside. Liles understandably doesn’t dare enter this building, either. But there’s still one more place for the photographer to visit; and something about it seems different from the rest.
For one thing, this building appears to be the least damaged one in the ghostly area – and one of the few places that Liles can probably enter safely. But nevertheless, he largely sticks to the outside of the property, using the windows to peer inside. And his curiosity uncovers a large room of unknown purpose. However, the enormous stone fireplace hints that the space may have once served as a social area or reception, perhaps.
Both collapsed stairs inside and fallen trees outside conceal the rest of the building from Liles’ prying eyes. But his limited view nevertheless gives a feel for what the hidden rooms may have once looked like – before they were seemingly abandoned, that is – along with the rest of the town. So, what may have caused people to depart the area, leaving it in this eerie state of disrepair?
Well, an information board on the site provides Liles with some answers. “These vacant buildings were once part of the ‘Wonderland Club,’” the sign reads. It seems, then, that the place was once was a vacation community – and a prosperous one, at that. Contractors had chosen the location because it was near to the busy logging town of Elkmont. The hotel subsequently opened to the public in 1912 and had seven years of operation before private business owners claimed it for themselves.
You see, a number of men from Knoxville, TN, wanted to create their own private venue in a similar vein to the nearby members-only Appalachian Club, from which they had been rejected. As a consequence, they turned the existing hotel into an exclusive social center, the Wonderland Club, which became a popular destination for affluent locals. However, the area lost money in 1925 when local logging projects receded, and so many of the buildings ultimately fell into disrepair.
The Wonderland Club’s story doesn’t end there, though. With the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1920s, several residents of the area were evicted. And while some club members managed to retain property contracts, in 1992 only two of these leases remained. The club officially closed its doors that same year, and the last of the agreements finally expired in 2001.
And the hotel – the last of the buildings that Liles explored – retains some historical significance, with authorities having claimed some of its more attractive features for preservation. It’s a good thing, too, because on top of general neglect, a fire further damaged the Wonderland resort in 1995.
Nowadays, then, the once-thriving Wonderland Club and the cabins around it sit lonely and abandoned. But while the ghost town might appear wholly forgotten, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has actually recognized the entire Elkmont region on its list of endangered places. How much longer the area will survive, though, is uncertain. And, fortunately, Liles recorded his poignant footage before another disaster struck the location – a devastating fire in 2016 – preventing the passage of time from completely consuming this deserted community.