There was a time I liked to think of myself as a deep-thinker.
In fact, someone who is capable of pondering life’s great mysteries and wrestling them into something manageable.
I was a voracious reader with – I can humbly say – a good mind.
And when you’re young, the edges of your own limitations seem distant, even permeable under the right circumstances. As we age, those limitations become sharper and less opaque.
Experience, in fact, teaches you that the same brain that allowed you to walk straight into the glass wall of the nocturnal animal exhibit at the London Zoo or walk into the wrong restroom multiple times in a calendar year is possibly not the high-functioning thinking machine you once thought it was.
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So, I find in my advancing age, that when faced with life’s bigger mysteries I turn to the great geniuses of yore. Namely, the time-tested thinkers’ mental achievements that are renowned the world over.
And when that fails, I fall back on pop culture.
The Dollywood Pedestrian Tunnel
And so it is that when Dollywood’s season opening forced me to confront the inexorable march of time that will eventually claim us all, I turned to the wisdom of Ted “Theodore” Logan who, with his partner Bill S. Preston, Esquire, went on many excellent adventures.
“All we are is Dust in the Wind,” Logan told the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.
Ok. Ted was quoting the prog-rock band Kansas but that doesn’t make it any less true.
What was it that forced me to face the inevitable future that awaits all of us?
The gone but not forgotten pedestrian tunnel, a Dollywood theme park landmark.
What happened to the Dollywood pedestrian tunnel?
In the park’s 2022 off-season, a decision was made to do away with the long-standing structure.
And with a swift swipe of an excavator, The Dollywood Company erased the pedestrian tunnel forever in an effort to make the walkways wider and more “user friendly”.
The public got its first real look at the change at a special event for the park’s opening in 2022.
The tunnel had, for generations, connected Craftsman’s Valley to the County Fair. It had once served as a platform for a long-since defunct attraction – The Inventor’s Mansion of Silver Dollar City.
In fact, for years, remnants of the old attraction could still be spotted behind the tunnel.
But today, the tunnel is gone, as are the remnants of the inventor’s Mansion that rested above it.
What replaced the Dollywood tunnel?
In its place is a truly jarring wide pathway with long rows of stone seating areas. Beside the path is a rather long retaining wall. Brown mountain dirt looms above. It’s modern and clean, with smart landscaping.
Still, for those of us who were so familiar with the tunnel, the new widened pathway is weird as heck.
I want to pause here for a minute to pat myself on the back. I wrote the following in an article about the closed Inventor’s Mansion.
“It’s appropriate that in a theme park dedicated to mountain life the remnants of a mostly forgotten relic are fading back into the scenery,” I wrote at the time. “Although, this is Dollywood. So it won’t be long until the space is rediscovered, repurposed and revitalized. Also very much in keeping with the spirit of the mountains.”
Specifically, I meant the Mansion’s leftover piece but I’m claiming credit for the whole dang thing. I called that, baby.
A brief history of Dollywood and how the tunnel came to be
Before we delve into the details of why Dollywood made the change it did, let’s go back, way back. Back to the 1960s and Rebel Railroad.
In the beginning, the park that would become Dollywood was a simple thing.
A North Carolina developer named Grover Robbins opened a railroad-themed park towards Blowing Rock. The park was a hit because the people of the 1950s and early 60s were crazy for that kind of stuff.
Robbins quickly acquired a pair of old steam engines and sent one to Pigeon Forge in East Tennessee. Tracks were laid down and Rebel Railroad opened to rave reviews. It became a jewel in the Sevier County tourism crown.
In 1966, Robbins renamed the attraction Goldrush Junction and added a western-style shootout.
In fact, the western theme remained the same when Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, bought the whole thing in 1970. Modell kept the park for six years.
And Silver Dollar City was on the way to becoming one of the best theme parks in the United States and the premier attraction in the region – except for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Looking back to the tunnel’s origins: The Inventor’s Mansion attraction
And it is here my friends, where our tunnel enters the story.
As the park grew, it was essentially a butterfly with an entrance in the middle.
On the left wing was lower Craftsman’s Valley with Blazing Fury and the Flooded Mine attractions.
On the right wing was the County Fair with the railroad, the Log Flume and the Cloud Grabber. The middle – which in our analogy would be the butterfly’s thorax? – was the Inventor’s mansion and the pedestrian tunnel connecting the two halves of the park.
The old mine tunnel was an integral part of the park’s overall theme.
The Inventor’s Mansion becomes a Dolly’s Rags to Riches museum
But when Herschend Family Entertainment partnered with Dolly Parton, the trajectory of the park changed forever.
They started overhauling the park infrastructure.
The Inventor’s Mansion was one of the first things to go, if not the first project overall.
It was repurposed as Dolly’s Rags to Riches Museum before eventually falling into neglect, a strange piece of the park’s former life left to linger.
The importance of the position of the tunnel beneath the museum was lessened as the entire park grew.
The new park entrance refocused traffic as the valley and the County Fair became the distant reaches of the Dollywood property and accessible from different areas.
Certainly, Dollywood tried to make the tunnel beneath the defunct attraction useful.
It housed the Silver Dollar Arcade for quite a while. There was also a gift shop that sold rocks and semi-precious gemstones at one point.
The museum above the tunnel was town down in 2018
But the arcade and gift shop were soon closed, and the former Inventor’s Mansion/Rags to Riches structure was (mostly) torn down in 2018.
Eventually, the tunnel became little more than a walkway.
There was a bit of nostalgia as some of the signs in the tunnel referred to long-lost parts of the park. Specifically, the Flooded Mine and the waterfall behind the Inventor’s Mansion.
But with the gate at the entrance to the tunnel coming down whenever the Dollywood Express came through, the tunnel began to serve as more of a traffic flow hindrance than a help.
This brings us to the current day.
So what have we lost? What have we gained?
Now, with the wide-open spaces, there’s more room for families to sit and rest and watch the train and wave as the passengers go by.
Losing the tunnel was a necessary part of the park’s progress and over the years, progress may be what the park does best.
If we’re being honest, the tunnel hasn’t served much of a purpose for years. I don’t know that it’s fair to even call it a popular landmark.
For the general public, it was a tunnel. Kids kinda liked it because it’s dark and mysterious and kids generally like tunnels.
Really, I don’t know if it’s the design of the new walkway, which is so clean and modern and new that’s throwing me off, or if it’s simply that something I’ve walked through hundreds of times has been erased from the park as if it never existed at all.
Ultimately, it was what it remains.
It was a pathway to connect areas of the park, a way to get from the Lightning Rod to the rest of Dollywood’s world-class roller coasters. And it was also a perfect place to get out of the rain when a cloudy day cut in on your summer fun but as the park transitioned from one expansion plan to another, change at that spot was inevitable.
It became a great place to get caught up in traffic as you waited for the train to pass.
The fuzziness of my own memories suggests I have little nostalgia for the tunnel itself.
However, I’m having a hard time expressing how truly odd it feels that it’s gone.
We don’t mourn for the loss of a pedestrian tunnel like we do our favorite rides from our youth, of course. But the final result is strange.
There is something deeply unsettling there that I can’t quite grasp. Something a younger me would put on his philosopher’s cap and try to grapple with. Older me, however, will simply turn to the comfort of a deeper thinker than I.
What do you think of the change? Let us know in the comments below.
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