Dollywood history: A look back at Rebel Railroad, Goldrush Junction

The Dollywood we know and love today has roots going back to the early 1960s (photo by Michael Gordan / Shutterstock.com)

The Dollywood we know and love today has roots going back to the early 1960s (photo by Michael Gordan/shutterstock.com)

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It’s taken nearly 60 years of growth for Dollywood to become the elite, award-winning example of theme park excellence it is today.

In fact, looking back to 1961, it’s almost hard to comprehend the evolution.

A vintage postcard from Rebel Railroad (archive photo circa 1960)
A vintage postcard from Rebel Railroad (archive photo circa 1960)

What is the history of Dollywood?

Dolly Parton was just 15 years old when a pair of enterprising brothers from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, doubled down on their railroad-related mountain tourism business.

The park was modeled after Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock.

The park featured a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a general store.

Rebel Railroad continued through the mid-1960s when it would undergo what would be the first of many transformations to come.

Read Also: Dollywood train history: Meet the attraction that pre-dates the park

A vintage postcard from Goldrush Junction (archive photo circa 1970)
A vintage postcard from Goldrush Junction (archive photo circa 1970)

Rebel Railroad changes its name to 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, others point to 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.

Read Also: Dollywood’s chapel: How a real church ended up inside a theme park

According to Dollywood, in 1973, it cost less than $35,000 to build the Robert F. Thomas Chapel (photo contributed by Richard Melton)
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 in 1976

Modell’s tenure wasn’t long.

The park sold again in 1976. Then, it was rechristened to 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.

Read Also: Uncovered Silver Dollar City photos offer a rare look at pre-Dollywood days

The Log Flume at Silver Dollar City
The Log Flume at Silver Dollar City eventually became part of Dollywood, but no longer exists today (photo contributed by Richard Melton)

When was Dollywood opened?

In 1986, Dolly Parton got on board. Queue the harps and angel choir.

Dolly’s arrival gave the park an immediate boost of national recognition.

It’s hard to overstate just how omnipotent Dolly was to the culture in the early 80s. Yet, nobody thought of her as the next Walt Disney.

The Hubris. The Gall. Dollywood? Is she for real? 

Friends, she was.

Dolly is driven by the desire to help her hometown grow.

Over the next 30 years Dolly’s imprint on the park itself, as well as the amusement park industry, is undeniable.

For example, her presence serves as a giant umbrella, looming over park management and her continued partners in the Herschend Family.

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.

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.

Read Also: Did Dolly sell Dollywood? Who owns Dollywood now?

Nods to the park's past can still be found throughout Dollywood, like this Silver Dollar City sign on the Blazing Fury coaster (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)
Nods to the park’s past can still be found throughout Dollywood, like this Silver Dollar City sign on the Blazing Fury coaster (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What was Dollywood like in the early days?

Dollywood’s creation coincided with my first-ever trip to Sevier County in the mid-80s.

Then a young Hoosier, I followed the traditional Indiana Rite of Summer with a vacation to the Smokies.

Everyone knows that East Tennesseans vacation at Myrtle Beach. Hoosiers vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains.

I had no idea I’d be moving to East Tennessee in a couple of years.

My memories of that trip are vague.

My teenage memories, as teenage memories often do, betray me. I wasn’t as impressed as I should have been. 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 and Cedar Point.

Over the years, I matured and embraced my East Tennessee home.

Dollywood grew more charming, and a trip to the theme park became less of a chore.

Today, Dolly is not only known as a country-music super star, but also a philanthropist who has transformed the lives of residents in her hometown of Sevier County and all over the world (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)
Today, Dolly is not only known as a country-music superstar but also a philanthropist who has transformed the lives of residents in her hometown of Sevier County and all over the world (photo by John Gullion/TheSmokies.com)

Dollywood’s impact on Sevier County

There was something else going on, akin to a snowball rolling down a hill.

Dolly’s powerful presence led to success. Those successes led to more money.

More money led to more investment in the park. More investment in the park led to more success and, without it being immediately obvious, Dollywood became a titan.

For example, the rides got bigger and better.

New roller coasters started popping up nearly annually. New sections of the park began opening and growing every year or two.

Read Also: What’s new at Dollywood in 2022? Clues on new rides, attractions

From rides to 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 really looks like the bright, blonde and brilliant successor to Walt Disney.

There’s a waterpark, a massive resort hotel, and hints for expansion all over the horizon.

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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Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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10 thoughts on “Dollywood history: A look back at Rebel Railroad, Goldrush Junction”

  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

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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!!!

  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.

  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

  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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