On the brightest days, shadows dance through the Smoky Mountains, puckish and laughing.
But it’s easy to be brave when the sun is high in the sky.
It’s when the shadows grow long or fade into night that the spirit of the mountains turns dark and cold. It’s when the wisps seem to take on a personality and the mountains themselves come to life with echoes that the spirits are tested when you’re alone in the vast woods.
In the days before the park, mountain folks were raised with the threats of haints and spirits, of goblins that snatched spiteful, mean or lazy children away never to be seen again.
In short, in the days before the National Park, the mountains were haunted.
Nowadays, it’s harder to believe in the legend of haunted hollers, in spirits or ghouls hiding in the crags and crevices. Sure, you can still give yourself a scare on a dark and lonely night, if that’s your thing. Maybe even stage a Blair Witch style camping trip, take a couple of cameras and film a ghost-hunting reality show.
But there’s a real ghost story in the mountains near Maggie Valley, North Carolina truer than any haint story that’s ever been told.
Our ghost story starts as many do in the bright and optimistic sunshine of shining capitalism and opportunity.
The story of “Ghost Town in the Sky”
A Virginia businessman by the name of R.B. Coburn brought a vision with him to Maggie Valley, an amusement park themed after the Wild West. There would be a town with stores, a salon, even a church. Tourists would come from all over for the rides and the shows, including shootouts in the streets, can-can dancers and mountain music.
Investors began buying bonds to build the park in 1959 on top of a sheared section of Buck Mountain in Maggie Valley. Ghost Town in the Sky opened in 1961 and, capitalizing on the last years of the country’s Western craze quickly became one of the premier attractions in Western North Carolina.
The first year guests were hauled up to the park – highest point about 4,650 feet – in the early days by an inclined railway. This inclined railway is also known as a funicular which is a fantastic word to sing in an operatic style.
The park quickly added a two-seat chair lift – at the time the second longest in the U.S. – which was capable of hauling 900 to 1,200 souls an hour up to the park from the ticketing center and parking lot at the bottom of the mountain.
Incongruities ran rampant.
First of all, in those early days, the park was far from a Ghost Town. It was an active, vibrant Wild West village with staged shootouts, stores and Sunday morning church services. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the park annually, drawing nearly 700,000 people at its peak.
Why, you might ask, was this mountain theme park based on something that would be more historically accurate in the actual West? It was the times. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the degree to which mid-20th century Americans loved the old West. A massive amount of popular culture was devoted to the subject and tourist attractions from Florida to New York tried to cash in.
In fact, Dollywood’s deepest roots are as a Wild West themed attraction.
In short, the money was in Cowboys and Indians and if that’s what the paying customers wanted, that’s what they got.
For years, the park – which was split into the Wild West town, a mining town and an “Indian Village” section, was a success story. There were two saloons, a bank and a jail. The “Indians” staged deer hunts and raids on a frontier village while cowboys shot each other down in the street like dogs every hour.
Coburn sold the park in 1973 and bought it back in 1986. By the late ’80s was in serious decline as the draw of the Wild West had waned years before.
Several attempts to spice things up with new rides and attractions, including the famous Red Devil Roller Coaster, but none of them proved to be enough.
What happened to Maggie Valley’s Ghost Town in the Sky?
The park’s Wikipedia entry claims a failure of management and a lack of maintenance ultimately doomed the park, but I’m not sure that’s correct. I think the Ghost Town was doomed the moment they decided to build it on top of the mountain.
Sure, the spot was fine for the ‘60s and 70s when tourists were content with carnival rides and old west shootouts. But as Silver Dollar City morphed into Dollywood on the Tennessee side of the park, the logistics of keeping up were too much, especially as code regulations became more stringent.
By the late ’90s many of the rides were either frequently shut down or all but closed. Attendance fell off. The money to maintain the park dried up.
It didn’t help that the park in Maggie Valley was competing with Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
I love Maggie Valley; it is a beautiful place to take the family. But it simply can’t support the tourist numbers needed to give the Ghost Town the financial support needed to maintain operations.
A series of unfortunate events
In 2002, the chairlift broke down, stranding passengers for two hours in the July heat. For all intents and purposes, the park was done.
Ghost Town was closed for the next four seasons before a brief resurrection in 2007. As much as $49 million was invested in the park over the next three years, but the Great Recession of the late 2000s proved to be too much to overcome.
A massive mudslide in 2010 occurred when a retaining wall gave way. No one was hurt but dozens of homes were evacuated. In the last decade, the park has been sold and put back on the market. Alaska Presley, a Maggie Valley businesswoman who had been with the park in its inception bought it at auction and tried to bring it back in 2012.
She achieved limited openings, mostly for nostalgia-interested visitors who had been to the park in its heyday. There were massive issues getting water to the park and Ghost Town had trouble passing inspection.
As late as spring of 2019, a planned rebranding and reopening had been hinted at but the property was back up for sale later in the year.
Millions have been spent to try and revive Ghost Town in one form or another, but I suspect that the park is good and truly dead. The limitations of location combined with the cost of getting it up to pass inspection seems to me, an insurmountable obstacle.
Editor’s Note: Photos used in this article, circa 2017, are courtesy of our friends at RomanticAsheville.com.