Photos from the 1970s remind us of the park that came before Dollywood: Pigeon Forge’s Silver Dollar City
Six Flags, Disney, Cedar Point and, yes, Dollywood, are managed with a statistical mastery of people’s behaviors. They are run with precise technologies that track wait times, dining and character interactions. On good days, the best modern amusement parks, of which Dollywood certainly is, encounter relatively few surprises. Things are run if not quite like clockwork, then with an efficiency that was simply not possible decades ago. They know visitors’ expectations before they walk through a turnstile. Each new shop, ride and new section are built with a better understanding of the needs and necessities of their patrons than Walt Disney could have ever imagined.
It is largely forgotten in the world outside of the fervent faithful of the Smoky Mountains that there was a park in the days before Dollywood. It was called Silver Dollar City. A doomed relic of a previous age that was saved by Dolly’s arrival. And park management’s deft transition from a simple mountain theme park to one of the premier amusement parks in the country. While the Dollywood of today is certainly superior to its ancestor, it does a disservice to forget Silver Dollar City’s many charms. In fact, the park was a lot more than a simple placeholder until Dolly came home.
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A brief Dollywood history
The first theme park on the spot was Rebel Railroad which opened in 1961. It lasted until Art Modell – owner of the Cleveland Browns football team – bought the property and rechristened it Goldrush Junction. Modell’s ownership lasted until 1976 when the Herschend family bought the park. It was renamed Goldrush for a single season. The Herschends had bigger plans. They already owned a park named Silver Dollar City in Branson, Mo., one that is still in operation today. They wanted the co-branding power of familiarity. Therefore, they made the Pigeon Forge a sister park to the Missouri facility, calling both Silver Dollar City.
The Herschends invested more than $1 million in Silver Dollar City added several attractions to what they had inherited. Silver Dollar City officially changed its name to Dollywood in 1986 when Dolly Parton came on board. Today, Dollywood is jointly owned by entertainer Dolly and Herschend Family Entertainment.
What’s left of Silver Dollar City at Dollywood today?
The truth is, much of the structure of what was once Silver Dollar City remains today. Blazing Fury, the Robert F. Thomas Chapel, the Grist Mill, the Dollywood Express, and Craftsman’s Valley all remain in some form or fashion in the current Dollywood park. Many of the crafts, like glass blowing, also remain largely unchanged. Some Silver Dollar City favorites have been lost to time. The Log Flume and the Cloud Grabber are long gone as is the Flooded Mine. The latter is still running at the Branson, Missouri Silver Dollar City park today.
What was Silver Dollar City like?
What Silver Dollar City was and what Dollywood has become is the difference between theme parks and amusement parks. Though the line has been blurred significantly in modern time, back in Silver Dollar City’s heyday, there was a clear distinction. There was a very different purpose between the two. For instance, at Silver Dollar City, the rides were something of an ancillary experience and thrills were hard to come by. You came to Silver Dollar City not simply to ride but to experience the shows, visit the craftsmen and wander the bizarre mountain community. You came to Silver Dollar City and you (gasp) learned something.
It’s hard to describe the nuanced differences. Painting in broad strokes, it was easier for the kids to be bored at a theme park like Silver Dollar City. That said, there were more opportunities for the adults to actually get to sit down and relax. To me, Silver Dollar City was split firmly in half. Nearly everything above the railroad track, Craftsman’s Valley, the shops, restaurants and shows were for the more adult in your traveling party. Everything below the rail, the Fun Country rides and games and the railroad station were for kids. Honestly, if we could have moved Blazing Fury, Flooded Mine and the magic show to the southern bit of the park, you could have gone all day without parents or kids having to interact at all.
Silver Dollar City’s special events
Like Dollywood, Silver Dollar City had a series of “Special Events” some of which are sorely missed. The first festival of the year would be the Ramp & Clogging Festival in April. A ramp festival at a theme park? Sign me up. For those of you who don’t know, the ramp is a garlicky wild onion that grows wild in the mountains. Nearby Cocke County hosts a ramp festival that used to be annual but has been hit or miss in recent years. The ramps, it seems, have become over-harvested.
Other popular events included Student Festival Days, Young Christians Day, Older Americans Days and an Indian Ceremonial Rendezvous each August. I especially like the idea of Older Americans Days. “Oh, you’re Canadian? I’m sorry this day is NOT for you.” One thing that hasn’t changed is the park’s commitment to mountain music and comedy. During Silver Dollar City’s best years, they used to boast that more people saw shows in the park than at Broadway. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. However, I do know many local musicians have worked their way through school while playing summers at Dollywood or Silver Dollar City.
Remembering Silver Dollar City
But if you want to know what the park was like before Dolly, you just have to look around. Stroll the shady length of Craftsmen’s Valley. Take in a show. Grab some down-home cookin’ (I couldn’t bring myself to type the word vittles).
Ride Blazing Fury four or five times. Ride the train twice and pretend the open spaces are filled with a train robbery or better yet stage a train robbery yourself. (Disclaimer: This will get you thrown out of the park and arrested.) Play the games in the County Fair and lose a lot – they’ve made it easier to win over the years, you know. Ride the bumper cars and the Ferris Wheel. Look longingly at the spot where the rickety old Log Flume used to be. That, my friends, is Silver Dollar City.
Many thanks to Richard Melton and Patricia Reaves for contributing the fun photos to TheSmokies.com (circa mid-1970s) seen throughout this article. Do you remember Silver Dollar City in Pigeon Forge? Let us know in the comments below!