Abandoned Tennessee: 11 Forgotten Places in the Volunteer State

(Abandoned Tennessee: the hidden history and derelict ruins of the Volunteer State)

It’s impossible to think about Tennessee without thinking of the vibrant country music scene in Nashville. When we set off to document the abandoned places here, we didn’t know why it was called the Volunteer State. The story is better than we could have hoped for, though according to Appalachian Magazine, no-one’s quite sure.

It’s generally agreed that the nickname comes from Tennessee’s willingness to volunteer for military service. But while some say it’s due to the role Tennessee volunteers played during the War of 1812, others believe the state earned its nickname during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. That story’s largely built on the shoulders of Davy Crockett, and though the history behind the Volunteer State’s name remains vague, there’s little doubt that it comes from Tennesseans’ willingness to fight for what they believe in.

With that in mind, let’s visit a varied selection of the most compelling abandoned places in Tennessee, which reflect the region’s history and offer an insight into what life was life used to be like in the Volunteer State.

Ashlar Hall, Memphis

Abandoned ruin of Ashlar Hall, Memphis

Ashlar Hall

Historic decay: Ashlar Hall (Images: Kiojn; Thomas R Machnitzki; Adam Jones, Ph.D.)

Ashlar Hall sits on Central Avenue in Memphis, and according to the nomination form submitted to the National Register of Historic Places, the mansion’s name stemmed from the building material used in its construction: ashlar stone. Built in 1896, it was originally the home of Robert Brinkley Snowden, one of the city’s biggest movers and shakers. Snowden was the driving force behind the construction of several major projects in Memphis, including the Memphis Municipal Airport. Once his own Ashlar Hall was built, he lived there until his death in 1942.

After Snowden’s wife also died, the property was purchased by a group of investors. From there, its history has been storied: the abandoned Tennessee home has been everything from a restaurant to a haunted house. More recently, though, it’s been cited for code violations. After a stint in the 1990s as a nightclub called Prince Mongo’s Castle, the stately building was abandoned. Countless plans have been put forward to renovate the historic house, but years of neglect have not been kind. With necessary repairs estimated near $150,000, it’s no small task, but locals have laboured to save this historic Memphis home.

Chisca Hotel, Memphis

Abandoned Chisca Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee

The Chisca Hotel, an abandoned Tennessee landmark

(Images: Thomas R Machnitzki 1, 2, 3)

The Chisca Hotel is one of the fortunate properties that has not only been saved from demolition, but given new life. Today, it’s an apartment building that has been renovated with an eye to the past and a look to the future.

The Chisca was built in 1913 and quickly gained a reputation as one of the most utilitarian of Memphis’s luxury hotels. They all thrived through the 1920s, but the racial and class tensions that erupted in the 1960s took their toll on the fortunes of Memphis’ famous hotels. That was after the Chisca had its moment in the spotlight on July 7, 1954, however, as the location from which the music of Elvis Presley was first broadcast.

As the area continued to decline, the later abandoned Tennessee hotel was donated to the Church of God in Christ in 1971. Numerous proposals were put forward to rejuvenate the ailing building, but none ever came to fruition, and the historic Chisca Hotel was finally abandoned in the late 1990s. The apartment complex that now occupies the building is the culmination of years of setbacks and hard work that have now thankfully borne fruit.

Abandoned Church, Adams

Abandoned church in Adams, Tennessee

Old wooden church in Adams, Tennessee (Images: Jennifer Kirkland 1, 2)

Adams is a small town in northern Tennessee with a population of around 600 people. The town was settled at the end of the the 18th century, and achieved serious notoriety thanks to the rise of the Bell Witch legend. But sadly, according to Flickr user Don, the church isn’t connected to the story of the Bell Witch at all – despite the occasional rumour found on the internet that it is.

There isn’t much information out there on this unassuming, boarded-up wooden church, but there are some stunning photographs and comments from those that live in the area on image sharing sites like Flickr. Located by a main road – as main as a road gets in such a small town – some have commented that they drive past it every day. While we might not know much about this lonely abandoned Tennessee church, it is proof that the beautiful is all around us. We just need to stop and see it.

Abandoned Slave Homes, Greene County

Abandoned slave houses in Tennessee

Former slave homes in Greene County, Tennessee (Images: Bill Showalter 1, 2)

Across the picturesque landscape of the south, reminders abound of the most shameful chapter in the history of the United States: slavery. Images like those captured by Flickr user Bill Showalter are helping to preserve that history in a way that’s accessible to everyone. According to Showalter, the buildings seen above have been preserved by the landowner in the same condition that they were in when they were abandoned.

Built in the 1800s, the abandoned Tennessee houses were once used by former slaves before and after the Civil War. They were only deserted in the 1970s, he notes, and were preserved in their current state. As an interesting side note about the world these homes were built in, Greene County was heavily pro-Union throughout the Civil War, and some of the largest Union meetings were held there. Greeneville – the county seat – was occupied by both sides, and even though Tennessee seceded from the Union, the county was a valuable and strategic seat of resistance.

Abandoned Tennessee State Prison, Nashville

abandoned electric chair chamber on death row at Tennessee State Prison, Nashville

Abandoned Tennessee State Prison, Nashville (Images: Dave.scaglioneAlison Groves)

In January 2016, The Tennessean reported that plans were at last being examined to restore and repurpose the formidable building that locals dubbed “The Castle”. Known to others as the Tennessee State Penitentiary, the prison in Nashville first opened in 1898. For almost a century, it was home to not only the state’s prisoners, but some of the strangest moments in music history also.

In 1968, Johnny and June Cash performed there, and a few years later, Loretta Lynn did the same. Nashville Public Radio even has recordings that were made inside the prison – they date back to 1933 and you can listen to them here. The now abandoned Tennessee State Penitentiary was home to at least one notorious name: James Earl Ray, convicted of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Even though the last inmates were moved out in 1992, parts of the building are still used for things like storage and the training of Tennessee law enforcement. It’s also been used in movies – most notably The Green Mile – and even though it’s filled with asbestos and rapidly deteriorating, there’s still hope that the historic building will be saved. There’s even the abandoned electric chair chamber on the empty death row.

Abandoned Post Office, Pruden, Kentucky and Tennessee

The abandoned Pruden Post Office (Image: Brian Stansberry)

According to the Flickr account PMCC Post Office Photos, the Pruden Post Office was abandoned in 2009. Serving a town that sat half in Kentucky and half in Tennessee, the post office was on the Tennessee side of the state line. Photos of the building in its last few years of operation show a weathered but proud little structure, standing against the backdrop of a cared-for lawn. In only a few years, though, neglect has already taken its toll.

Photos from 2016 show an overgrown lawn, broken railing, paint that’s quickly wearing off, and foliage that’s starting to take root on the roof of the abandoned Tennessee post office. It’s an eerie illustration of just how quickly nature starts to reclaim what man has built, and a reminder that she’s always watching and waiting.

Abandoned Walmart, Hamilton County

Abandoned Walmart store in Hamilton County, Tennessee (Image: Brave New Films)

Few national chains have such a love-hate relationship with the American public as Walmart, especially when things don’t entirely go according to plan. This abandoned Walmart in Hamilton County wasn’t closed because of slow business, but instead, according to Brave New Films, because Walmart wanted to open a new store… less than a mile away.

A quick glance at Walmart locations in Hamilton County shows that they’re all now Supercenters, and according to a report by Medium, upgrading regular stores to Supercenters is one of the biggest reasons that the company abandons one location like this for another just a stone’s throw away.

The problem, of course, in repurposing these massive stores is the size (as with some abandoned strip malls). Few places – whether they’re retailers or other businesses – need or can afford the space that a Walmart once occupied. Medium also reports that the company has its own realty division due to the scope of its developments.

Abandoned Stores in Iron City

Abandoned stores in Iron City, Tennessee (Image: Brian Stansberry)

Officially, Iron City got its name from a nearby iron foundry and mining operation that transformed it into a profitable location through the 1880s. Unofficially, on the other hand, its name may also refer to its reputation as a place filled with drugs, moonshine and lawlessness.

Quite how much is true isn’t known for certain, but an article that appeared in The Tennessean about a documentary called Iron City Blues suggests that the reputation was well-deserved. But while the sheriff recalls bootleggers, the residents insist that’s not the type of place it is at all. Not any more, at least. Today, Iron City is the type of place that looks after its own. After the iron industry collapsed, the town began to fade, too.

It was dis-incorporated in 2010, and part of the town’s lawless reputation stems from the fact that there are no police here any more – just the county sheriff. It’s not helped by the slow decay that’s eating away at the stores and streets, which were once bustling with life. But residents of the old Tennessee mining town remain hopeful that Iron City will endure.

Abandoned Buildings on Main Street, Loretto

Abandoned stores in Loretto, Tennessee (Image: Brian Stansberry)

Loretto, Tennessee is a small town with a big name. With fewer than 2,000 residents, there are several different stories behind how the town came to be so called. While some say it was named for a saint, others claim that it comes from the Loretto region in Italy. Either way, the town’s heyday is long past.

Once a bustling lumber town, Loretto was put on the map when the railroad arrived in the 1880s. The area that’s now known as the historic district grew and blossomed, with general stores, hotels, cafes, a doctor’s office, and even a stage coach stop. But what progress brings, progress also takes away. With the construction of Route 43 nearby, traffic was routed away from Loretto and the once-thriving town started to falter.

Although the declining Tennessee community is now applying for grants to help preserve its historic buildings, a lack of commercial activity and interest is clearly taking its toll, as the abandoned buildings above demonstrate.

Defunct Lime Kilns, Erin

Abandoned lime kilns in Erin, Tennessee

The historic Erin lime kilns (Images: Nyttend 1, 2)

The abandoned lime kilns outside of Erin have a geocache hidden in them, and the description gives a wonderful background on what the lime kilns were used for and how they shaped the entire area. The post – written by caverdon – explains how limestone from the area was heated to create quicklime, which was then used for in the production of plaster, whitewash, soap, and even in theatrical lighting. (It’s where the term “limelight” comes from.)

Because Tennessee had vast deposits of limestone, it became a major producer of lime from around the end of the 1800s until the 1940s. The remnants of five abandoned Tennessee lime kilns still stand, close to quarries that once formed the backbone of industry. One such quarry flooded when workers struck a spring. In 2013, the entire site was excavated, putting to rest any stories that mining equipment was left behind when the quarries flooded. Such tales may be untrue, but the lime kilns remain a well-crafted historic reminder of the now defunct local industry.

Abandoned Warehouse, Memphis

The abandoned warehouse of W.T. Rawleigh Company in Memphis, Tennessee

W.T. Rawleigh Company's abandoned Tennessee warehouse (Images: Thomas R Machnitzki 1, 2)

It doesn’t look like much today, but the derelict building towering above Crump Avenue in Memphis was once the backbone of a thriving mail order business that was one of the largest in the country. According to Memphis Magazine, the Memphis location was just one branch of the W.T. Rawleigh Company, founded in 1895 by an entrepreneur who developed an entirely new way of selling.

Headquartered in Illinois, the W.T. Rawleigh Company made and sold more than 100 household items, from seasonings to cleaning products, but none were found in stores. They relied on door-to-door salesmen to recruit their customers, and it worked. By 1920, company employees were delivering their wares to more than 22 million homes.

The Memphis location closed its doors in 1970 (manufacturing had halted in 1958), and like many abandoned places in Tennessee and beyond, the complex changed hands several times. For years a symbol of urban decay in Memphis, the historic warehouse building may be set for a new lease of life. In 2015, The Commercial Appeal reported that the abandoned Tennessee building was poised for revitalisation by U-Haul.


About the author: Debra Kelly




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