A once beloved, now abandoned theme park deteriorates through decades of unfortunate events
In the days before the Great Smoky Mountains National 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. 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.
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, and ends with a creepy abandoned theme park that some would believe is cursed, or in my opinion, simply having a decades-long run with bad luck.
Editor’s Note: Photos used throughout this article were taken in 2007 during the park’s brief resurrection.
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Ghost Town’s origin story
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 mountain town with stores, a saloon and a church. Tourists would hopefully come from all over for rides and 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 the top of Buck Mountain’s peak in Maggie Valley. The prophetically named 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.
Guests were hauled up to the park – the highest point an elevation of about 4,650 feet – in the early days by an incline railway. This incline railway is also known as a funicular which is a fantastic word to sing in an operatic style. At that time, the railway was the nation’s first double-incline railway and also the steepest. The park quickly added a two-seat chair lift. The chair lift at the time was the second longest in the U.S. It 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.
For years, the park was a success story. Nearly 700,000 people visited annually at its peak. There were staged deer hunts and raids on a frontier village. And the cowboys mowed each other down in the street every hour. Rides included the Sea Dragon, Casino, Black Widow Scrambler and Silver Bullet Flume.
The initial decline of Ghost Town
Coburn sold the park in the early 1970s and bought it back in 1986. But 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. However, none of it proved to be enough.
It is generally believed to be a failure of management and a lack of maintenance that ultimately led to the closure of the park. An important issue was the lack of an evacuation route. However, I’m not sure that’s all of this story. 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. 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 so as code regulations became more stringent.
By the late ’90s, many of the rides were frequently shut down due to mechanical issues. Some rides closed. Attendance fell off. The money to maintain the park dried up. It didn’t help that the park in Maggie Valley, near the lovely Blue Ridge Parkway, was competing with Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. In 2002, the chairlift broke down, stranding passengers for two hours in the July heat. The park was done.
A resurrection and a series of unfortunate events
Ghost Town Maggie Valley 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. However, 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 since 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. Presley has since passed away. 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.
Ghost Town’s ill-fated future
The most recent opening talks began in late 2019 when Frankie Wood negotiated a deal with owner Alaska Presley. A new corporation was formed, Ghost Town in the Sky LLC, and Wood was signed on as a managing member. In August of 2021, Wood made a rare public speaking appearance. At the time, he announced an investment of up to $200 million into the park in front of the local Chamber of Commerce. But while these talks inspired hope for some, they sparked doubt for others. In the following months, reports came out that Wood had a complicated financial history.
Presley, the long-time owner of Ghost Town in the Sky, passed away at the age of 98 in April 2022. Therefore, there has been an ongoing legal battle surrounding Ghost Town in the Sky and its stakeholders. A lawsuit was filed in August 2022 for control of the property. That lawsuit is still ongoing at the time of this writing. Meanwhile, the property continues to deteriorate.
The future of Ghost Town remains uncertain. The area has suffered some vandalism as well, adding to the costs of repair. Millions have been spent to try and revive Ghost Town in one form or another. But I suspect the park will never open its doors to the general public again. The limitations of location combined with the cost of getting it up to pass inspection seem to me, an insurmountable obstacle.