The History of Dollywood

Posted by Staff on Friday, January 6th, 2012

Dolly Parton standing in front of Dollywood, Tennessee

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.

Postcoard of Rebel Railroad in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

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.

Post Card featuring Goldrush Junction in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

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.

Robert F Thomas Chapel at Dollywood, Tennessee

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.

The Grist Mill at Dollywood, Tennessee

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.

Dolly Parton riding a Ferris Wheel at Dollywood, Tennessee

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.”

5 responses to “The History of Dollywood”

  1. daryl says:

    we made a visit to dollywood back in 1999.. it was so beautiful and relaxing and heartwarming to listen to dolly’s music playing all over the park…BUT then our last visit on 10-19-2012…. we were very disappointed, we only heard a couple of her songs…where did dollys music go??????

  2. Margaret Lape says:

    I just wanted to say that it was the best amusement park around.

  3. Andrea G says:

    I was dissappointed at christmas time when rode the train and no christmas lights in the mountains. I had gone many times at christmas and there used to be lights in the mountains.

  4. David Baglin says:

    We are from Florida and travel to Tennessee annually for decades now. Mostly to hike the trails in the Smokies. Our kids begged us to take them to Dollywood. I Am glad we did. It is a great park that is nowhere as crowded as Disney our hometown park. The rides are great the theme is authentic, Disney hires actors for their frontier land with a lot of makeup and fake beards. Not Dolly she has real hillbillies portraying themselves and their way of life. And they seem quite happy to be themselves and are genuinely interesting. That’s how I would describe Dollywood, a genuine Good time at a reasonable price and they have a great water park as well. We go back years after year. It feels like visiting family, family that you love and cherish.

  5. Dan DePew says:

    I visited Dollywood for the first time in the summer of 2015. I loved the Dolly Parton museum and couldn’t believe the hours I could have passed just being there. The park was clean and attractive at every intersection. The shows were entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable. The only letdown for our family was the lack of trade skills being demonstrated throughout the park. We thought we would see tradesman throughout the park keeping history and the skilled arts of the area alive. A visit to the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village in Michigan would offer a lot of great new ideas and low cost options for enhancing this part of your park. We’ll be back!

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