The History of Dollywood
Posted by Staff on Friday, January 6th, 2012
When two brothers from North Carolina opened the Rebel Railroad in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, they had no idea that it would one day be among the most visited amusement parks in the world. 25 years after the Robbins brothers opened the small park featuring a coal-fired steam train, it would be rechristened as Dollywood. However, this wasn’t the first time that the park had changed names. Over the years, the property changed names and owners numerous times before it finally became Dollywood in 1986.
Rebel Railroad, which opened in 1961, was designed as a tribute to the Smoky Mountain way of life. Besides the steam train named Klondike Katie, the small park also featured a general store, a blacksmith, and a saloon. Although the park would soon change owners in 1970, the spirit of tradition would remain at the Robbins’ park even into the present day.
In 1970, the Rebel Railroad was purchased by Art Modell, the owner of the NFL team, the Cleveland Browns. He renamed the park Goldrush Junction and expanded it along the same Appalachia theme laid out by the Robbins Brothers. Now known as “Tennessee’s Million Dollar Fun Attraction,” the much larger park featured new attractions such as a saw mill, an outdoor theater, log cabins, and a campground, as well as many children’s rides. Modell also added a small chapel named after the Sevier County doctor who delivered Dolly Parton. This chapel was just one of the many connections to the park and county that led Parton to eventually buy into it and give it her name.
Before Dolly Parton would become involved with the park, it would first change owners and name one more time. In 1977, Goldrush Junction was sold to Jack and Pete Herschend, of Herschend Enterprises, and renamed Silver Dollar City Tennessee. The Herschend brothers were looking to build upon the success of their original Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri. Just like the Tennessee park that they had just acquired, Silver Dollar City in Branson paid homage to the unique history of the area, featuring frontier-style buildings and other period specific attractions.
When the Herschend brothers acquired Goldrush Junction, they were just as committed to preserving the heritage of the Smoky Mountains as they had been to preserving the traditions of Branson. They poured more than a million dollars into the park right away, bringing in even more craftsmen to show off their trades, as well as adding more rides and attractions. In 1983 Silver Dollar City opened the first working grist mill Tennessee had seen in over 100 years. Under the Herschend’s direction and commitment, attendance grew steadily through the early 1980s attracting the attention of one of Sevier County’s most famous natives, Dolly Parton.
In 1986, Parton partnered with the Herschends and together they reopened the park under the name, Dollywood. With Dolly Parton as the face of the park, attendance soared in the first year under the new name. But Dolly brought much more to the park than just her name; her years of experience in the entertainment industry would play an integral part in growing the park into the immensely popular theme park it is today.
Since the theme park became Dollyland, it has more than doubled in size and received more than $110 million towards new attractions. The combination of exciting rides, performances, and traditional Appalachian crafts have made it the most visited attraction in Tennessee, and one of the 50 most visited theme parks in the world. Even as the park has grown in size, it has maintained many of the rides and features that first endeared it to the people of Tennessee back when it was the Rebel Railroad. At the same time, it is able to attract an international crowd with its world-class roller coasters. In March of this year, Dollywood will unveil the first Wing Rider roller coaster in the United States, the Wild Eagle. It is this commitment to both local tradition and state-of-the-art rides that has made Dollywood unique among theme parks and a place that creates “memories worth repeating.”