Before there was a Dollywood. Before there was a Silver Dollar City.
There was a railroad track and a dream.
The history of Dollywood’s WWII steam engines
In 1961, a pair of brothers from North Carolina desired to recreate the success of Tweetsie Railroad, a popular theme park between Blowing Rock and Boone.
The brothers purchased a pair of US Army Transportation Class steam engines S118 Class 2-8-2, originally used in World War II.
One went to North Carolina. The other, #192 “Klondike Katie”, came to East Tennessee to be the main attraction at a theme park by the name of Rebel Railroad in Pigeon Forge.
In addition to the rail ride, the original park had a general store, a blacksmith shop and a saloon.
It’s impossible to overstate how much this park would have jived national obsessions of frontier life and the Wild West, which were still quite popular in the late ’50s and early ’60s but certainly on the decline from their previous heyday.
The Lone Ranger. Davy Crockett. Gunsmoke.
Americans were in love with the idea of an American frontier filled with noble gunmen and a judicial ethos that could best be described as fluid. It was a world in which disputes were settled with hot lead. Luckily, the people doing the dying had the good manners not to bleed and shock the fragile sensibilities of those watching from home with a TV dinner on their lap and lust for vicariously living lawlessly in their hearts. But I digress.
There are competing reports of when the park that would become Dollywood changed it’s name. Some say in 1966 the Robbins brothers moved away from the Confederate rail theme to Gold Rush Junction, adding a Western-style shootout with live actors. Other reports say the change came in 1970 when the park was purchased by the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Mr. Art Modell.
The Dollywood website makes references to the latter in their historical account so for the sake of this article, we’ll go with Dollywood.
The year 1976 brought another ownership change. The Herschend Family purchased the theme park and renamed it Silver Dollar City.
One year later the park would add yet another WWII veteran to the railroad lineup – #70 Cinderella.
While the park around the train ride grew and evolved, the steam engines endured through years of paint jobs and modifications.
The Wikipedia entry talks a lot about the addition and eventual subtraction of something called balloon stacks. It’s a wormhole I didn’t go down. I don’t shame anybody’s hobby, to each their own, but I could never learn enough to satisfy train-enthusiasts, and I’d only piss them off trying. There were balloon stacks, then there weren’t, we can all move along.
The Dollywood era and the changes that followed
In 1986, Dolly Parton joined the Herschend Family in their theme park enterprise and created the park as we know and love it today – Dollywood.
While the trains and the railroad largely remained the same, a few elements did not stand the test of time.
The live actors and mid-ride shows endured for years into the Dollywood era.
I have vague memories of the train stopping so a little gun battle could play out. But eventually it was played out.
What was cool and fun and amusing in 1961 was hopelessly cheesy circa late-1990s. We had Cruise. We had Schwarzenegger. We had Rambo. A little Bonanza era pop gun battle was not going to impress anyone anymore.
Dollywood wisely dropped the actors and now the train offers a leisurely, scenic ride through the park complete with a lot of waving.
The riders are encouraged to wave at the bystanders. The bystanders are encouraged to wave at the riders. At this point, can we all just ride and pretend the other people aren’t there like God intended?
Tips for riding the Dollywood Express
The train ride remains incredibly popular, and it’s always a good idea to consult the schedule when arriving at the park. You’ll want to get there well ahead of scheduled departure because the lines can be long, and there’s nothing worse than getting your Thomas-the-Tank Engine obsessed little one all fired up to ride the steamer and then be turned away. That’s the kind of vacation faux-pas that will leave a mark.
Tips for riding the train itself? The seats aren’t terribly comfortable so if you can figure out a way to cushion your backside, good on you. Those with back problems may need to assess if they can sit uncomfortably for the 20-minute mountain excursion. On hot days, a breezy ride on the train can be quite refreshing. But be aware, the engine throws off tiny black pieces of soot that can leave marks on light-colored clothing. Don’t wear white if you can help it.
Also, because the flying black specks can, on rare occasion, land in an eye and cause irritation, some form of glasses are a good idea.