Remember When, Lost Smoky Mountain Attractions – Rebel Railroad and Goldrush Junction

Dolly as the engineer on the historic #192 steam engine.
Dolly as the engineer on the historic #192 steam engine.

Remember When, Lost Smoky Mountain Attractions – Rebel Railroad and Goldrush Junction?

These two attractions are technically “lost” as in gone and somewhat forgotten…but can you guess what they turned into?  

Yep you got it – Dollywood!

Dollywood saw many incarnations over the years before it became a mega-popular amusement park in Pigeon Forge, TN combining crafts, food and rides that draw on the Appalachian heritage that also produced its namesake Dolly Parton. Of course, music is an extremely important part of Appalachia as it is for Dolly and Dollywood. 

Dolly opens the friendliest town in the Smokies.
Dolly opens the friendliest town in the Smokies.

Question: Which came first – the Railroad or the Junction?

Tweetsie Railroad was operated by the Robbins family beginning in 1957 near Blowing rock, NC. Locomotive no. 12 was the only remaining locomotive that survived the dissolution of the ET & WNC (East TN and Western North Carolina) train route. Gene Autry, yes THE Gene Autry, purchased no. 12 and its cars wanting to move it to California. However, he soon realized it was very cost prohibitive to take it cross country and sold his purchase option for $1.00 to Grover C. Robbins, Jr. July 4, 1957 saw the first run on a one-mile track carrying passengers to a picnic area and then backing up to the station. Later, a three-mile track was completed, a western town added and the Wild West theme of Tweetsie Railroad – the first theme park in NC – was born.

The Robbins’ decided to expand their Tweetsie Railroad operation to East Tennessee. The first phase of the park located in Pigeon Forge included the stream train ride, a general store, blacksmith shop and saloon in 1961 and was named Rebel Railroad. Its theme was inspired by the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and let riders on the train experience “attacks” by Union soldiers, train robbers, and Indians using real guns loaded with blanks. 

In 1970, Art Modell (who also owned the Cleveland Browns football team) purchased Rebel Railroad and renamed it Goldrush Junction. In addition to the original attractions, a log flume was added, an outdoor theater, and in 1973 the Robert F. Thomas Church. 

Bonus question: The Robert F. Thomas church is still in the park. Does anyone know what his connection to Dolly Parton was?

The Herschend Family in Branson, MO purchased Goldrush Junction (known for one year in 1977 simply as Goldrush) then changed the name to Silver Dollar City in 1977. Surrounding acres of land were purchased and expansions continued through the years growing the park in size and attendance. The Herschends already had theme park/attraction experience in Branson, MO with Marvel Cave which became Silver Dollar City in 1960. They added many more attractions through the years and began to look eastward for expansion. Singer, actress, all-round superstar and Sevier (pronounced severe – now…you sound local!) County Native Dolly Parton came into the picture in the mid-1980’s. She was interested in the theme park business but admittedly had no experience in that area. She looked to the Herschends for their experience and in 1986 Silver Dollar City became Dollywood. Attendance and park growth exploded after Tennessee’s favorite daughter lent her name to the endeavor. Growth has steadily continued with the addition of Splash Country Water Park in 2001 and Dreammore Resort in 2015. 

Dollywood has become Tennessee’s biggest ticketed attraction with 3 million guests annually and 150 acres of family fun. There is something for everyone in the park including rides, shopping, theaters and shows, restaurants (the cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill is a musttaste!) and festivals, lovely landscaping, the American Eagle Foundation and arts and crafts.

Did you get the answer to the bonus question above? The answer is that Dr. Robert F. Thomas was the local Sevier County doctor who delivered the 4th of 12 children to the Lee & Avie Lee Parton family – Dolly Rebecca Parton – on January 19, 1946. She recently celebrated her 75th birthday & shows no signs of slowing down!)

(Thank you to the Pigeon Forge Public Library for photos. Wikipedia, Dollywood.com)

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