Before there was a Dollywood. Before there was a Silver Dollar City.
There was a railroad track and a dream.
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.
One of those steam engines went to North Carolina. The other became the main attraction at the theme park that eventually became Dollywood.
What is the train called at Dollywood?
The Dollywood train is known as the Dollywood Express, but it is actually operated by two steam engines, known as Cinderella and Klondike Katie.
Back when Dollywood was known as Rebel Railroad in 1961, #192 Klondike Katie made its way to East Tennessee to be the main attraction at the theme park 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.
Americans were in love with the idea of an American frontier with a judicial ethos that could best be described as fluid. It was a world in which disputes were settled with hot lead.
Changes of ownership at the theme park
There are some conflicting reports of when the park that would become Dollywood changed its name.
Some say it happened in 1966 when the Robbins brothers moved away from the Confederate rail theme to Gold Rush Junction, adding a Western-style theme 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, so 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.
The park would add yet another WWII veteran to the railroad lineup – #70 Cinderella.
The Dolly Parton website confirms that both steam trains were built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Both were originally used in Alaska during World War II to transport lumber and troops on various missions.
While the park around the train ride grew and evolved, the steam engines endured through years of extensive maintenance, 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 anger them by trying.
There were balloon stacks, then there weren’t, we can all move along.
From Silver Dollar City to Dollywood
In 1986, Dolly Parton joined the Herschend Enterprises family and created the park as we know and love it today, Dollywood.
While the trains and the railroad largely remained the same, the changes in ownership meant 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 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, Schwarzenegger and Rambo. A little Bonanza-era 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. It’s just one of the reasons that Dollywood is known as the friendliest theme park.
Does Dollywood still have the train?
Yes, Dollywood still offers the train ride that takes riders on a five-mile journey through the mountains.
The train ride remains incredibly popular, and it’s always a good idea to consult the schedule when arriving at the park.
Is the Dollywood train still free?
The train ride is included in the park admission price.
If you’re planning a trip, check Tripster for discounts and special offers.
How long is the Dollywood train ride?
The train ride is about 20 minutes long. Seating is first-come, first-served. Departure times are limited and subject to delays.
Visitors will 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.
Dollywood train ride tips and tricks
Tips for riding the steam locomotive 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 occasions, land in an eye and cause irritation, some form of glasses are a good idea.
Also, the wind can be chilly in winter months so be sure to bundle up.
What locomotives have you been on? Have you ridden the Dollywood Express train in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.? Let us know in the comments below.
View the web story version of this article here.