A Look at Dollywood History, the Park Before the Dollywood Era

daddy bryson train at dollywood in the 1970s

The above photo was taken in the 1970s. Today, this train is known as Klondike Katie (photo contributed by Richard Melton)

It’s taken nearly 60 years of growth for Dollywood in Pigeon Forge to become the elite, award-winning example of theme park excellence it is today. Looking back to 1961, it’s certainly hard to comprehend the evolution. So, let’s take a look at the Dollywood theme park before it became Dollywood.

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What is the history of Dollywood?

Dollywood began as a park called Rebel Railroad in 1961. Dolly Parton was just 15 years old when a pair of enterprising Robbins brothers from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, expanded their railroad-related mountain tourism business to Tennessee. The Pigeon Forge theme park was modeled after Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock. The main attraction was a coal-fired steam engine. That locomotive is still in operation at Dollywood today as Klondike Katie. Rebel Railroad’s entertainment also included a working blacksmith shop, a saloon and a general store. The park continued to operate through the mid-1960s when it would undergo what would be the first of many transformations to come.

rebel railroad postcard with two trains
A vintage postcard from Rebel Railroad (archive photo circa 1960)

Rebel Railroad becomes Goldrush Junction

There is inconsistent reporting on when Rebel Railroad changed its name to Goldrush Junction. Some reports indicate it was in the mid-60s. However, the Dollywood website says it was 1970. That’s when the park was purchased by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. It makes sense for Modell, who was seen as a progressive NFL owner, to be the one to change the name. Under Modell’s ownership, the park added a log flume ride, an outdoor theater and the Robert F. Thomas Church.

chapel at dollywood in 1970s
According to Dollywood, in 1973, it cost less than $35,000 to build the Robert F. Thomas Chapel (photo contributed by Richard Melton)

Goldrush Junction becomes Silver Dollar City

Modell’s tenure wasn’t long. The park sold again in 1976. At that time, it was rechristened Silver Dollar City. This made it a sister park to the new owners’ park in Branson, Missouri. Under the 10-year solo ownership of Jack and Pete Herschend, the park grew substantially.

log flume ride in silver dollar city days at pigeon forge
The Log Flume at Silver Dollar City eventually became part of Dollywood, but no longer exists today (photo contributed by Richard Melton)

When did Dolly Parton buy Dollywood?

In 1986, Dolly Parton got on board. Queue the harps and angel choir. According to the Dollywood website, the change was because of an interview between Dolly and Barbara Walters. Dolly talked about her dreams of building a theme park in the Smoky Mountains. Reportedly, the Herschend brothers offered a partnership, not wanting to compete with the local legend. This new partnership gave the park an immediate boost from humble beginnings to national recognition.

It’s quite hard to overstate just how omnipotent Dolly Parton was to the culture in the early 1980s. Yet, nobody thought of her as the next Walt Disney. The Hubris. The Gall. Dollywood? Is she for real? Friends, she was. She is driven by the desire to help the location of her childhood home grow. Over the next 30 years, Dolly’s imprint on the park itself – as well as the amusement park industry – is undeniable. Dollywood is now a household name.

Dolly on stage with Dollywood President and Benjamin Bear
Dolly Parton makes an appearance at the park in 2022 to talk about new expansions in Wildwood Grove (photo by Daniel Munson/TheSmokies.com)

How much does Dolly have to do with Dollywood?

A lot. Her presence serves as a giant umbrella, looming over park management and her continued partnership with the Herschends. Her presence is so ubiquitous that many, including my wife, operate as if Dolly herself is leading boardroom meetings. Some folks picture Dolly hand-selecting rides and approving day-to-day operations. I swear my wife thinks of Dolly as if she’s Santa Claus. Hard-working amusement park elves operate the rest of Dollywood.

To this day, Dolly makes appearances at the park, most often for big announcements, expansions and season openings. Make no mistake, Dollywood’s success is driven by the people who work mostly behind the scenes. However, it was Dolly’s arrival, name recognition and continued cachet that allowed the park to thrive.

silver dollar city sign
Guests can find nods to the park’s past throughout Dollywood, like this Silver Dollar City sign on the Blazing Fury dark ride (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What was Dollywood like in its early days?

During my first visit to Dollywood in the mid-80s, I was a young Hoosier. East Tennesseans vacation at Myrtle Beach. Hoosiers vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. At the time, I had no idea I’d be moving to East Tennessee in a couple of years. My memories of that trip are vague.

At the time, I thought the park was a tad boring. Still a northerner at heart, I decried Dollywood as inferior to Six Flags, King’s Island, Cedar Point and other tourist attractions. But over the years, I matured and embraced my East Tennessee home. Dollywood grew more charming. It grew and expanded. And eventually, a trip to the theme park became less of a chore.

dolly parton at dollywood
Dolly Parton waves to her guests at the 2023 season opener (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Does Dolly Parton still own Dollywood?

Today, Dolly Parton has a continued partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment. So, she owns part of Dollywood. And her presence is still ubiquitous throughout the park. Dollywood is where you can find a replica of her childhood home, see her former tour bus and more. Her company also expanded with Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, massive resort hotels and hints of expansion all over the horizon. The theme park company continues to grow to this day, as evidenced by the new Heartsong Lodge and Resort and new rides like Big Bear Mountain.

dolly parton performs "I will always love you" in front of 50th anniversary logo
Dolly Parton sings “I Will Always Love You” during the park’s I Will Always Love You celebration (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

Dollywood still has a strong impact on Sevier County

Overall, Dolly’s powerful presence led to success. Those successes led to more money. More money led to more investment in the park, and without it being immediately obvious, Dollywood became a titan. Today, Dollywood welcomes around 3 million visitors each year. The park has both children’s rides and thrill rides that rival some of the biggest parks in America. The park is even home to the country’s largest presentation of non-releasable bald eagles.

And yes, you can still a coal-fired steam train, the Dollywood Express. It’s actually operated by two steam engines, Cinderella and Klondike Katie. With rides, thrills, music, mountain crafts, cinnamon bread, annual festivals and events, if you go to Dollywood and don’t have a good time, it’s your fault. Or possibly the fault of your hot and whiny kids. Today, Dollywood collects Golden Ticket awards like Charlie Bucket and Uncle Joe. Dolly looks like the bright, blonde and brilliant successor to Walt Disney. Dollywood, like its namesake, is an amazing American success story.

Do you remember Dollywood before it became Dollywood? Let us know in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “A Look at Dollywood History, the Park Before the Dollywood Era”

  1. I stopped at Dollywood in 1987 with my almost 3 yr old daughter & my Mom (around 60) on way back from visiting my CW friends John & Dee Taylor in FL. Enjoyed the park & panning for gold, couple kids rides & one show before having to leave. Time to visit again before my daughter gets any older. We will definitely ride more scary rides & enjoy more if the shows..maybe Christmas time when we meet somewhere between IL & FL. Can’t wait to see the park 30 yrs later

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  2. My dad would take me every year when I was a kid and we would ride the log flume over and over. It was my favorite. This was in the early to mid 90s.

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  3. We went there last week for our son’s wedding. City is gotten way too busy. Gatlandberg is a little more upscale but still too much going on to really enjoy it.

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  4. Everything changed when Dollywood opened. A small town that was known as a beautiful place to ski, ice skating, scenery, and a great place to elope, became a place for the family to enjoy and return every year. Dolly has not only created Dollywood but she has done so much for her hometown. She is a beautiful person with a big heart.

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  5. I remember Silver Dollar City, very fondly. My Dad worked there, so luckily I would get a good discount on admission. The Log Flume was my absolute favorite!!!

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  6. I am 71-years-old now. I remember taking a ride on the Rebel Railroad in the summer of 1961. We took a family vacation, visiting some of the battlefields around Fredericksburg, Virginia and then headed to Washington, D.C. From there we drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway around North Carolina and up through Tennessee.

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  7. Been to each park version as well as Tweetie RR. Being 70, I thoroughly enjoyed each park byt Dollywood by far a favorite! Season pass holder 15 years and love the festivals, rides, food and shows. Been to Branson park also. Thank you, Dolly

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  8. First went To Rebel Railroad in 1960’s. Have rode on the White Pass and Yukon railroad in Alaska where engine Klondike Katy is from. Been to every change in park. When children were small, made many trips during their growing up. Now go with Grandchildren. Season pass holder for many years. Watched Dolly grow up singing on Cas Walker television show, then on Porter Waggoner show. She is a great asset to Sevier County and East Tennessee.

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