This is What Dollywood Looked Like Before Dolly Parton Bought It

the log flume and a live stagecoach at silver dollar city

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

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.

Before Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee became the theme park we know and love today, it went by a few different names. Most notably, the park was known as Silver Dollar City before Dolly Parton came on board. The photos below show a glimpse of what the park looked like in the 70s and 80s.

the grist mill
The Grist Mill is still in operation at Dollywood today (photo courtesy of Patricia Reaves)
the dollywood train in 1977
Engine #192 predates the theme park itself. But back then, it went by the name of Daddy Bryson (photo courtesy of Richard Melton)

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.

the chapel
Fun fact: Dolly didn’t name the Robert F. Thomas chapel, even though it’s named after the doctor who delivered her. Thomas’ reputation around town was such that the folks at Goldrush Junction named the chapel in his honor more than a decade before Dolly took over the park. (photo courtesy of Richard Melton)

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.

glass blowing at silver dollar city
Glass blowing was a part of Silver Dollar City, and it still is part of Dollywood today (photo courtesy of Richard Melton)

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.

a photo op at silver dollar city featuring a wheelbarrow
Another thing that hasn’t changed over the years: Photo-ops with a sense of humor (photo courtesy of Richard Melton)

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.

people sitting in rocking chairs on a front porch at silver dollar city
If you take a moment the next time you’re at Dollywood to sit and reflect, you can almost see the old Silver Dollar City all around you (photo courtesy of Richard Melton)

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.

a horse and a stagecoach
Here’s one thing you don’t see at Dollywood nowadays outside of the bird show: live animals (photo courtesy of Richard Melton)

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!

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

19 thoughts on “This is What Dollywood Looked Like Before Dolly Parton Bought It”

  1. The flooded mine and something like the log flume is still at the Branson Silver Dollar city I would know I just rode both today

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  2. I am 53 years old and grew up in Maryville and Knoxville. I was fortunately able to attend Goldrush Junction , Silver Dollar City , and Dollywood . When I was a kid the train was very memorable , the train was robbed by Indians and protected by Cowboys or sheriff. Wouldn’t be politically correct today but made train ride much more exciting ! Now I have kids 19 and 24 years old and they have grown up with Dollywood season passes ! Dolly sure has taken care of and employed a lot of people in her home town . Money much better spent than trips in to space like other millionaires lately .

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  3. … I was in “Craftsman’s Valley” in the 1980-’81 season working in the gunsmith shop,… to me the most important part of the park was the featuring of the old mountain crafts,.. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with the tourists and making sure they were having a great time,… !!! … I enjoyed, and miss those days,…

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  4. The flooded mine. For those who don’t know what it was it was very similar to pirates ride in Disney. I wish Dollywood would recreate it

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  5. When my dad went to silver dollar city we received two silver dollar coins for change st the ticket booth. My dad still has the coins im 48 i beleive i was 4 the first time we went we went back s few years later and it was dollywood . It was in it infancy and most of the previous attractions the one that sucked the most was dolly’s music blared out the speakers all day. I also remeber ghost town in maggie valley and i remeber playing a chicken in tic tack toe on thr sidewalk games of Cherokee i beleive and chicken won everytime. But i have to say the best things at silver dollar city then to me was that mine ride i remember sign saying live bird means no gas and the bird wast hanging and the town was on fire it was and your on a dark trip down the tracks and a load train with lights coming right at you and your car dropped off under the oncoming catastrophe. As a 4 year old i was admittedly scared on a ride that was really silly. Ive never forgoten that special place and ofcourse with outrageous ticket prices with rooms eating and high gas cost with coved19 waiting to infest your lungs hell why go anywhere i just tell my kids stories of when you use to have a family vacation every year.

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  6. Were kids deputized after raising their hand to take the “promise”? I think we still have the hat and the pertinent badge.

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  7. Other memories are coming back…..crafts out of wood. I just know we enjoyed the area as our boys were around 5 to 7 I believe.

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  8. Handmade Lyme soap was made and sold. You could visit an actual repair shop for the horse drawn carriages, so many crafts—brooms, leather, the gentleman that played the mouth harp (I want to find his music again!), the old school house where you could do leatherwork…. Don’t forget the Imagination Station with its rotating collection of fun & education and closing a day of fun out with Elwood Smooch, James Rogers, Suzy Bogus and so many at the Silver Dollar /Dollywood Jamboree.

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  9. I loved the log flume ride you could put your hands in the water and splash as you rode along. Back then the price of admission was alot less than dollywood. It was alot simpler. Then when dollwood took over it was all dolly music hard to bear allday.

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  10. I just wanted to make a correction..
    In the article you have Brandon, MO when it should say Branson, MO. Our family, the 6 of us, lived in the Branson area & would buy season passes to Silver Dollar City since around 1974 up to a couple of years ago when our health & age kept us from visiting the park. Those season passes were our “vacations”! I had forgotten that Dollywood used to be Silver Dollar City also! How Silver Dollar has grown over the years! Now our grandkids love going there! I really enjoyed your articles!

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  11. I remember silver dollar city growing up , I remember the rainmaker the bearded older mountain man with the jackass, Im pretty sure he would give badges to us kids and when u got off the train the ladies that dressed up in their parlor outfits would let you pull a leg garter off their leg for 3 dollars maybe and they would whistle and holler while you did it, flooded mine , blazing fury and the log ride was all awesome.

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  12. There was also the hilarious Rainmaker. Originally he rode around the park in a horse drawn wagon and entertained the audience with hokey fun and then sprayed them with water. As if it was raining .
    The another place was up above the fake rock tunnel near the train station. In the rock tunnel you could mine for gold and buy fake gold ect. But up above the rock was another type of exhibit. I can’t remember the name. But it was something like the Crazy professors house of amazement or something. You walked in and the floors were all wonky and narrow doors that were short ect. And krooked chairs and other optical illusions.

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  13. No one mentions the Prospector who hung out by the entrance bridge, I remember when he died and all the kids loved him so they said he moved to the Yukon to prospect so we wouldn’t be upset that he died.

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