Crossing the railroad tracks and entering the tiny mountain town of Hot Springs (population 600), one immediately notices the brightly-lit brick building to the left. There are several vehicles parked out front, and a swirling sense of joyful curiosity envelops any and all who pass by.
“You are here to be loved on and feel comfortable,” said Karen Howard-Goss. “This is a laid back environment, one with homemade, delicious food and quality service. Whether it’s the ingredients or the care provided, we focus on consistency.”
Co-owner of the Iron Horse Station with her husband, Gary Goss, the couple have become ambassadors of real-deal Southern hospitality for Hot Springs and greater Madison County.
Originally from South Carolina, Karen and Gary would stay in Hot Springs often, always thinking about someday taking the leap and calling the town home. They befriended the previous owner of the Iron Horse, telling him if the property ever was to be sold, they wanted first crack at taking over.
“We just fell in love with this place. Everybody is accepted here. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from—we’re all part of this community,” Howard-Goss said. “And, in 2018, the owner of the Iron Horse was looking to sell. He told us we were the only people he had in mind to take over and continue to uphold the high standards of this business.”
In terms of the menu, Goss will say “it’s a steak and seafood kind of place.” But, upon glancing through the numerous dish options, the culinary delights are purposely cultivated from creativity and a keen sense of what will provide nourishment—physical and emotional—for the hungry souls wandering in.
“We always get the best product we can; we don’t skimp on anything,” Goss noted. “And we’re always tweaking everything we put out, trying new and better ways to make a dish or present a certain type of meal. We like to experiment and hone our craft of what we’re trying to do, and ultimately be.”
Regarded as the oldest brick building in Madison County, the structure has been dated back to the 1860s. One part of the massive property is the restaurant. The other part is home to 15 rooms that comprise the inn component of the Iron Horse.
“Back then, this building was a halfway house for the people who worked far from home on the railroad,” Goss said. “And today, we accommodate guests from across the country and around the world, which is something we really enjoy being able to offer.”
The venue has developed a loyal following from locals and the vast number of folks on vacation in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Among the sincerely cherished interactions at the Iron Horse are from hikers popping off the nearby Appalachian Trail in search of a hot meal in the midst of an arduous trek.
“It’s an honor to hear the stories of every hiker who comes in, especially those who are thru-hiking the AT. Each one is on a quest and has a million different reasons for doing so,” Goss said. “Some of the hikers are young and some have planned to do the AT for their entire life. The stories can be very emotional—we’ll sit here for hours and listen to them. Just to have this spot where that connection occurs is something very special to all of us who work here.”
The Iron Horse remains a continual beehive of friendly people, culinary treats, and unique lodging. But Karen and Gary already have plans in the works to add another, much-desired business to Hot Springs: a brick-oven pizza establishment that’ll be located around the corner.
“A big priority for us will always be to give Hot Springs what it needs, with every business in town working together,” Howard-Goss said. “We want to be a positive catalyst for change here, and we are always looking for ways to do better. We’re not competitive here. We want to help each other grow and be proud of where we live.”