What does Dollywood’s oldest roller coaster Blazing Fury have to do with the James Gang, bushwhackers and a mysterious, yet oddly persuasive, giant?
I’m glad you asked.
It’s like Six Degrees of Separation but with Ozark Mountain vigilantes in horned Devil masks.
In 1976, Herschend Family Entertainment, owners of the original Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., purchased what was then the Gold Rush Junction in Pigeon Forge from Art Modell, then-owner of the Cleveland Browns.
The Herschends quickly set about recreating their successful Missouri park in the mountains of Tennessee, rebranding it Silver Dollar City and recreating some of the other park’s most popular elements, including the first indoor roller coaster Fire in the Hole.
Blazing Fury, Fire in the Hole’s sister coaster, opened in June of 1978. Like Fire in the Hole, it was built in-house, not by some fancy roller coaster design team.
A POV video of Fire in the Hole can be viewed below.
Blazing Fury tells the story of a town ablaze. Firefighters come to the aid of drunken reprobates, gunslingers and desperate townspeople, including a man in an unfortunate position in an outhouse and a woman desperately in need of a Tinder account.
But how did the fire start?
Who put the blaze in Blazing Fury?
Well friends, brace yourselves, we’re about to go down a wormhole with a more drastic drop than any coaster you’ve dared to ride.
The history that inspired Fire in the Hole
Welcome to post-Civil War Missouri.
It’s a lawless era. Think Mad Max Fury Road mixed with Back to the Future III.
Into the void stepped outlaws like Frank and Jesse James. Guerrilla warfare, known as Bushwhacking, raged as disputes over land were settled with fighting and murder. In the 20 years after the war, 40 murders were reported in Taney County.
None were ever solved.
Into this wild west in the Ozarks stepped Nat. N. Kinney, a silver-tongued outsider who arrived with his family and swiftly placed his 6-foot-6, 300-lb self on the front line of an effort to curb the anarchy.
Kinney and 12 others formed a vigilante group with an eye toward cutting down the murdering, thieving and general crimes running rampant.
They called themselves the Citizen Committee and The Law and Order League, but the townspeople christened them the Bald Knobbers because they held their “secret” meetings atop a mountain bald, to keep a lookout for spies.
What is a Bald Knobber?
The Bald Knobbers initially wore a kerchief over their face, but graduated to truly insane full face hoods with devil horns and holes cut out for eyes and mouths.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with great power and plausible deniability created by the hoods, the Bald Knobbers quickly grew in number, losing sight of the original purpose.
Soon the Bald Knobbers weren’t simply driving out outlaws, they were driving out the competition and serving as a lawless gang themselves, giving rise to the loosely knit organization known as the anti-Bald Knobbers.
The leader of the Bald Knobbers was Andy Coggburn, a 19-year-old orphan with a big mouth and the spirit of an early Edgelord.
Unsurprisingly, Coggburn, who enjoyed deriding Kinney, pulling pranks and speaking out against the vigilantes was killed when Kinney shot him in “self-defense.”
In 1886, the governor sent in people to calm things down and elicited a promise from Kinney to disband, which he did, but things had already gotten out of his control.
It wasn’t enough to save Kinney, however. He was hunted down by an anti-Bald Knobber named Billy Miles who walked into a store and gunned Kinney down. Miles claimed self-defense and was exonerated.
So how does this all get us to Dollywood’s Blazing Fury?
Well, let’s connect a few dots. The Bald Knobbers originally operated in Taney County, Mo., which is home to Branson, the future location of Silver Dollar City.
In addition, a giant cave, now known as Marvel Cave, was a known hideout for the group and is located in the amusement park.
When creating the ride, the Silver Dollar City team used the story of Marmaros, a tiny mining town which had sprung up near the cave.
The town, which in addition to apparently harvesting bat guano from the cave, was designed to become a tourist mecca but failed in both mining and attracting tourists – unlike nearby Eureka Springs, whose economy was not based on bat droppings.
When the town was destroyed by fire, many blamed the Bald Knobbers, which was not the worst guess. Others blamed a drunken fight at the tavern and others to outrage created when a Canadian businessman bought the cave.
The ride designers leaned on the sketchy history and made the Bald Knobbers the arsonists, creating the first indoor roller coaster.
The Bald Knobbers remain an integral part of the Missouri ride today. They are blamed for setting the fire and are periodically stationed throughout the ride. Ride goers pass a Bald Knobbers camp and witness first hand a shootout between a trio of Bald Knobbers and a sheriff.
So why aren’t there Bald Knobbers inside Dollywood’s Blazing Fury?
In Pigeon Forge, however, you won’t hear the legend of the Bald Knobbers.
In fact, you get no reference to how the fire started at all.
But the similarities are uncanny. Instead of Molly saying she’s about to jump, and Luther telling her he’s got a weak back, you’ll hear a slightly different line in the parallel universe of Silver Dollar City:
“You come back in here and put on your pants!”
“I ain’t got no pants no more! The dang Bald Knobbers stole ’em!”
But at Blazing Fury, it’s likely that park officials believed the Bald Knobber history was too obscure for riders in East Tennessee. We would likely only be confused by the references to a clan of Devil-masked vigilantes.
It seems likely the gunslingers serve as stand in for the Knobbers.
In general, it’s a bad idea to launch a theme park ride that needs a 700-word pamphlet of exposition to explain the characters, their backstory and what’s going on.
Everybody gets the gunslinger. No backstory required.
Did you know about the pants-stealin’ Bald Knobbers? Let us know in the comments!