Visitors to the top of Camp Creek Bald, known locally since the 1970s as Viking Mountain, probably notice some features that seem out of place: a half-dozen tiles anchored at the edge of Jones Meadow, sections of paved road in a clearing that looks otherwise deserted, and slabs of concrete situated at various points in the field.
The towering mountaintop south of Greeneville is the county's modern-day ghost town, a spot where people go to start a hike or enjoy gorgeous views. Many who visit there probably have no idea that it ever looked much different from the way it looks today.
Rewind to 40 years ago, though, and Viking Mountain was anything but a sleepy spot. Bright lights twinkled in the sky as visitors reached the top and found an attractive ski lodge/restaurant, and well-kept grounds dotted with small, rounded cabins with modern amenities, for overnight stays.
For those who were living here in the 1970s, Viking Mountain is remembered now as a story of hope, brief success, and the ultimate failure of a series of projects that, for a short time in the mountain's long history, brought a resort to Greene County.
SOME BIG PROBLEMS
Research by The Greeneville Sun indicates that the multi-million-dollar development atop what became known as Viking Mountain, a dream for many from the late 1960s into the 1970s, failed for three main reasons:
* The lodge and other facets of the resort were riddled with financial problems that started not long after the project's inception.
* The property, although attractive in itself, was accessible (except by helicopter) only by a very rough, unpaved road that never saw the significant improvement that would have been necessary to make the resort concept a success.
* There was not enough snow to support a ski resort.
VISION OF A RESORT
In the 1940s, the top of Camp Creek Bald wasn't so different from the way it is now. Cattle grazed in the meadow, and hunters, campers, hikers and picnickers made up most of the few who journeyed to the top. A U.S. Forest Service fire tower was located not far away.
Greeneville resident Walter Brannan and his family owned nearly 400 acres at and around the top of the mountain.
On Aug. 11, 1964, he sold the property for $35,000 to a group of local men organized for business as Bald Mountain, Inc.. The company bought the land, with the vision of seeing Camp Creek Bald become a ski resort.
One of the most active boosters of the project was the late Jimmy Gray Cutshaw, a Greeneville attorney.
The transaction marked the start of the mountain's modern history.
By 1968, the group had built the first leg of a ski slope, along with a few chalets at the top.
ROAD ACCESS A PROBLEM
The most costly decision made by the group, the Sun reported at the time, was the switch of ownership of the access road from the U.S. Forest Service to the county government, in the hope that the county would improve the road.
But the county never made the much-needed -- but difficult and expensive -- improvements to the road connecting the site with Tennessee Rt. 70, the Asheville Highway.
As a result, road access up the mountain from the highway remained a major problem that only worsened as the years passed, the newspaper reported.
SOLD TO FRANK KAEHN
By late 1968, expenses were piling up for Bald Mountain Inc., and the group sold its investment to Florida businessman Frank E. Kaehn. An interior and industrial designer, Kaehn had "big plans for the site."
In a long statement to the Sun in October 1968, Kaehn promised a year-round resort that would offer skiing, horseback-riding and a lodge. His company was known as Mountain Venture.
By 1972, much of what Kaehn had envisioned had been accomplished: A lodge named The Valhalla Inn was growing in popularity, especially for its food and superb view, and the "rondettes" (the small, round cabins) were being rented.
On Feb. 7, 1972, the first -- and only -- ski season opened on Viking Mountain. About 200 people skied on the mountain that day, after several inches of snow fell.
'A VERY UNIQUE EXPERIENCE'
For a year or so, it was not unusual for Greenevillians to make the difficult drive to the top of the mountain for dinner at the lodge.
Greene County Clerk and Master Kay Solomon Armstrong recalled in a recent interview driving to the lodge about 1970 with her parents, the late John D. and Polly Solomon.
"Daddy took Mom and me up there, and I remember eating in the lodge and looking out a window and thinking how pretty the view was," Armstrong said.
"It was a very unique experience -- unlike anything else in Greene County," she added. "It was quite special to me."
However, the success of the resort and the county's first-ever ski season was limited, and warning signs began emerging in the summer of 1971 that Mountain Venture was experiencing financial difficulties.
The firm, along with other investments by Kaehn around the U.S., had accumulated massive amounts of debt.
By 1971, local businesses were filing liens against Mountain Venture for outstanding bills. In October 1971, ownership of Viking Mountain was shifted to Viking Co., also headed by Kaehn.
Both corporations filed for bankruptcy, and the resort and lodge were formally closed to the public in 1972, only weeks after its ski season had briefly opened.
THE EUGENE HOLLEY ERA
The final collapse of any sort of resort on Viking Mountain corresponded with the fall of R. Eugene Holley, of Augusta, Ga., now deceased.
Holley was a former Georgia state senator and a wealthy entrepreneur, whose business activities included some that were related to the international oil industry.
He bought the property in 1973 with plans to turn it into a private resort for himself, his family and his business associates.
Holley, who worked with lucrative oil companies across the world, brought several international figures to Viking Mountain, including high-level oil industry officials from the Middle East, and even some American astronauts in 1977.
He became a familiar -- and memorable -- figure at the Greeneville Municipal Airport in those years.
The reason: he would sometimes bring his guests to Greene County in a customized BAC 1-11, a British Aircraft Corporation short-range jet airliner of the 1960s and 1970s. The large, luxurious passenger jet was, of course, a rarity here in those years.
From the airport, Holley and his guests would be ferried to the lodge at the top of Viking Mountain by helicopter.
But financial problems in the oil business followed him, and by the end of the 1970s, he went bankrupt. He was later convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison.
The lodge and resort continued to change hands into the 1980s. By the middle of that decade, the site had been abandoned, with the structures on the mountaintop sitting empty for more than a decade.
The Forest Service bought the land from its private owners in the late 1980s, and the first project of the Unaka Ranger District's Cheryl Summers when she came to work in Greene County in the early 1990s was to have the structures removed.
She accomplished that, and by 1995 the lodge and all of the rondettes on top of Viking Mountain had been either bulldozed or torn down, giving the mountain virtually the same look that it has now -- and that it had before development began there in the late 1960s.
"The buildings were in ruin [by the early 1990s], and some of them had been vandalized," Summers said this week. "They were, of course, nothing like they had been."
Now, the Forest Service staff keeps Jones Meadow, the site of the former resort, maintained so that visitors to the mountaintop can enjoy the natural beauty and the spectacular views that the location offers on clear days.
Under the ownership and authority of the federal government, the site will likely remain in its natural state for many years to come, perhaps always, although the handful of indications of the resort development of the 1970s remain here and there.
Interestingly, ever since the resort-development years, the road from the Asheville Highway to the top has been officially known as Viking Mountain Road, and that's the way the maps show it today.
'WHO CAN SAY ... ?'
"I'm sure many Greene Countians and other East Tennesseans continue to have memories of the years when there was a lot of excitement about the mountain and what was going on there," Sun Editor John M. Jones Jr. said this week.
Jones researched and wrote a number of newspaper articles about the mountain in the late 1960s and the 1970s, and also visited Valhalla Inn a time or two for dinner in the Frank Kaehn years when the lodge functioned as a restaurant.
"It always seemed to me that the greatest obstacle to success the resort concept faced was the road access problem, and I think that was the general feeling here," Jones said.
"Had there been money to fix the road, among other things, who can say what would be on Viking Mountain now?
"At its height, the lodge and the overall development were quite impressive," he added, "complete with good food in a setting that offered an unsurpassed view of the county looking north from near the North Carolina border.
"It is, I would say, a vanished dream."