Since those first eager guests passed through its turnstiles on May 3, 1986, Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has been one of the most popular vacation destinations in the Southeast. Throughout its 25-years-plus history, Dollywood has consistently expanded and grown, offering an experience steeped not just in mountain crafts, foods and music but also thrill rides and unique attractions.
Many visitors, however, may not realize that Dollywood wasn’t the first theme park to do business at that location. The first one was called Rebel Railroad, which opened for business in 1961. The attraction was centered on a coal-fired steam engine named Klondike Katie as well as a general store, blacksmith shop and saloon. The train (which is still an integral part of Dollywood today) was a source of fascination for Smokies visitors interested in learning more about mountain history and culture.
In 1970, Rebel Railroad was purchased by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell and transformed into Goldrush Junction, although the original Rebel Railroad components remained essentially the same. Over the next several years, other elements like an outdoor theater and a log flume ride were added as was the Robert F. Thomas Church, which is still an important feature of Dollywood’s Craftsmans Valley today.
The Herschend family, current co-owners of Dollywood, bought the attraction in 1977 and changed the name to Silver Dollar City, an expansion of the original Silver Dollar City park they were already operating in Branson, Missouri. The Herschends added more than $1 million in improvements, making mountain crafts a focal point of their operation. In subsequent years, more rides and music stages were added to the mix.
In 1986, hometown girl Dolly Parton joined the Herschends as a part owner in the theme park and lent her name to the newly re-branded Dollywood. In the years since, the partnership has added more than $110 million in expansions, primarily in the form of news shows, attractions and thrill rides.