Lee Hotel at Spring, Walnut Streets Owned by Civil War Captain

My August 14, 2006 column dealt with a vicious storm that smacked Johnson City around 1913, causing significant damage to the surrounding area including the Lee Hotel on Spring Street.

Quoting from the article: “The front door transom was blown out striking manager, Mr. W.I. Ray, in the head causing ‘an ugly wound, which though painful, is not serious.’”

I received a note from John Doe (who asked not to be identified) sharing added information about the largely forgotten hostelry of yesteryear. We compared notes and pieced together today’s column. According to John: “Captain William C. Lee, CSA veteran for whom the hotel was named, married Unicoi native Mary Ellen Anderson Ray in 1889. She was previously married to Captain John Henry Ray, a USA Veteran. After John died in 1887, Mary Ellen wedded Captain Lee. Four years later, William, his wife and her one surviving son, William I. Ray, took up residency in Johnson City. Lee became owner of the Lee Hotel in 1894.”

Other businesses along Spring Street during the turn-of-the-century were Summers-Parrott Hardware, Johnson City Water Co., Congress Shaving Parlor, City Grocery & Feed Co., C.W. Seaver Harness Co. and The Staff (newspaper).

John indicated that, while he was never in the hotel, he acquired some little-known information about it from William Ray prior to his death in 1962: “The hotel was a two-story brick structure, which may have had a partial third story in the rear. The backside had a wooden porch covered with vines that also spread across the adjacent wall. The entrance was rather plain with a small porch over the door. Radiators heated the building with steam supplied from a coal-fired furnace. A sign on the second floor advertised ‘Steam Heat.’ In addition to about 20 hotel guest rooms, the building provided accommodations for the Lees and Rays. Later, the Ray family moved adjacent to the hotel at 204 W. Walnut and then to nearby 506 W. Pine.”  

Ray, who became hotel manager, met his wife-to-be, Mabel Essensa, when she and her father roomed at the inn. The couple married in 1910. Ray held the job until 1917 when he accepted employment with the ET&WNC Railroad.

When Captain Lee died on April 4, 1914, Mrs. Lee assumed ownership of the business. By then, she was receiving a $12 per month Union Army widow's pension resulting from her first husband. John did not believe that Ray at any time owned the hotel. He was fairly certain that Mrs. Lee possessed it during the three years between her husband’s death and her son’s departure. She possibly owned it until her death in 1924, perhaps hiring a new manager to replace William. Records show that Hugh L. Boring became the hotel’s new owner. The Lees were interred in Oak Hill Cemetery.

City directories confusingly list the Lee Hotel between 1909 and 1923 as being located at 113 Buffalo; Spring and Walnut; and 904, 310 and 704 Spring. The five addresses likely identify the same property since streets and house numbers were occasionally renamed. Frank Tannewitz once told me that he made deliveries to the Lee Hotel on numerous occasions and stated emphatically that it was located in the northwest intersection of Spring and Walnut.

Directories list the hotel between 1909 (the city’s first one) and 1937. No mention is made of it in 1939, but it reappears in 1941 as the Travellers Inn. It retains the name until 1950 when it disappears from the record. By 1953, the Salvation Army had occupied the former hotel site.

Mr. Doe and I hope readers will respond with ancillary information including photos and advertisements.