It’s not uncommon to wonder what Pigeon Forge was before it became the tourist town it is today.
When did the town start? How did it get its name?
It’s possible, I think, if you get into remote and old enough parts of the forest, to visualize what the first settlers saw in the deep woods.
But, so much has changed I don’t think we can really properly understand that world.
Back then, the mountains were home to elk, bison, wolves and mountain lions. And the river.
And we turn to that river for our first clue.
How did the Pigeon River get its name?
Half of the name Pigeon Forge comes from The Pigeon River.
And the Pigeon River was named for passenger pigeons, which are now extinct.
Passenger pigeons were so plentiful that their flocks could darken the sky when they took wing.
The beech trees along the river’s banks, once filled with beechnuts, were stripped of their limbs, unable to support the weight of the now-extinct passenger pigeons.
But as for the “Forge” part of the name, we have to dig a bit deeper.
The first settlers and Cherokee Nation land
The first white people who found their way to what is now known as the Pigeon Forge area were likely traders who were following a route known as the Indian Gap Trail.
The next settlers were soldiers of the American Revolution.
Men like Mordecai Lewis, Robert Shields and Col. Samuel Wear were given land grants in return for their service.
The land was in the heart of the Cherokee Nation.
In 1785, a token delegation from the Nation agreed to the Treaty of Dumplin Creek, which gave much of what is now Sevier County to the developing State of Franklin helmed by future Tennessee Gov. John Sevier.
The treaty, which refers to the “white people” as the “elder brother” of the Cherokee, is vague on the compensation given to the Cherokee for this massive land.
It only promises “reasonable and liberal” compensation.
The Cherokee were reportedly, and unsurprisingly, unhappy with their compensation. Both Shields and Wear built forts for shelter.
Wear Fort, near the mouth of Walden’s Creek on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon, was frequently targeted for retaliation by the Cherokee who were upset that the fort was located on what was rightfully Cherokee land.
Today, the Pigeon Forge Library building sits near the historic site.
Shields Fort was near what is now Dollywood.
Lewis arrived in the late 1700s. He was appointed coroner in 1794 and was Justice of the Peace.
At some point (accounts differ on the year), Gov. William Blount granted him an additional 151 acres on which the Pigeon Forge Mill would be eventually built.
How Pigeon Forge got the rest of its name
After Lewis died in 1817, the land and wealth were split among his nine living children, including Mary and her husband Isaac Love.
With this land, Love built the iron forge on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River that would inspire the second half of the town’s name on land near the mill in the early 1800s.
A forge, for the uninitiated, is a type of hearth used for heating metals.
In addition to their ironworks, the Love’s land was home to the Short Mountain Furnace, according to the J.A. Sharp collection.
The furnace was fueled by wood from the forests. A dam operated the bellows.
Sharp said older citizens would tell of standing on nearby hills at night and watching the beautiful fires that could rival the flames of hell.
Still, iron ore isn’t exactly plentiful in East Tennessee, and smelting the ore into pig iron requires immense heat.
Today, you can find an Iron Mountain Metal Craft blacksmith shop where blacksmiths demonstrate the old-fashioned trade in the Old Mill grist mill area.
The original forge is removed from the city
A Sevierville businessman named Micajah Rogers bought the Short Mountain Furnace in 1836 while the Loves retained their forges.
Rogers renamed the site the Sweden Furnace and partnered with a group out of Greeneville promising iron as good as that produced in Sweden.
However, the quality and quantity of the ore was poor and by 1840, the furnace – Swedish or otherwise – was shut down.
The iron forge from which the city took its name was shut down prior to 1884. Some believe it was taken to Kentucky.
According to the city of Pigeon Forge website, the 500-pound hammer used in the forge was preserved.
“After the original forge was removed, the hammer was displayed, first, at Butler’s Home Market, then, Henry and Fannie Butler’s Forge Hammer Grill and later at Apple Tree Inn,” the website states.
“The forge’s hammer continued to remain on display at the Apple Tree Inn for many years.”
When did Pigeon Forge become a tourist town?
With no major roads or rail, Pigeon Forge developed slowly.
By 1834, the TVA reported no tourist-related business in town.
By 1950, with improvements to U.S. 441, residents ran a handful of lodges and campsites, but nothing significant.
However, limited space in Gatlinburg forced entrepreneurs to look to Pigeon Forge.
The town was officially incorporated in 1961, shortly before Rebel Railroad opened – the park that would eventually become Dollywood.
In the early 80s, city leaders hoped to capitalize on the World’s Fair coming to Knoxville. They passed legislation offering incentives and support to theme parks, outlet malls and live venues.
Then Dolly Parton came back to The Smokies and the rest, as they say, is history.
Did you know how Pigeon Forge got its name? Let us know in the comments.