Since 1986, visitors from around the world have become well acquainted with the Dollywood name and experience. However, the entertainment park actually traces its roots back to 1961 when Rebel Railroad first opened on the site that, over time, has expanded and grown into Dollywood.
The Robbins Brothers from North Carolina operated a small-scale attraction that featured a coal-fired steam train named Klondike Katie, a general store, a blacksmith shop and a saloon for visitors to enjoy. The Robbins Brothers had indeed created a winning formula. Visitors were intrigued by the Smoky Mountain way of life, and vacationers were eager to catch a glimpse of what Rebel Railroad had to offer. Little did the Robbins Brothers know that they were laying the groundwork for what would later become Tennessee's most-visited attraction.
In 1970, Rebel Railroad underwent a change in ownership and name when it was purchased by Art Modell, then owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Under new ownership, Rebel Railroad was renamed Goldrush Junction and was touted as "Tennessee's Million Dollar Fun Attraction." Though the name had changed, the experience was unaltered; actually Goldrush Junction began to expand. Visitors still enjoyed the five-mile train ride into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, complete with mock Indian attacks and train robberies.
New attractions including a wood shop and a saw mill were added in a nod to the area's rich history as a logging community. Further additions included an outdoor theater, log cabins, a campground, and several children's rides. Goldrush Junction visitors could pan for gold, stop by "The Lady Gay" saloon which featured live entertainment, and ride the Log Flume which had been relocated to Goldrush Junction from the New York World's Fair. In 1973, the Robert F. Thomas Church was constructed. Named for a well known doctor in the Sevier County area, the Robert F. Thomas Church represented the strength and devotion of this Appalachian community to its Christian values. Later on, the Robert F. Thomas Church would have a strong link to a very well known Sevier County native.
Silver Dollar City
Visitors continued to flock to this attraction located just outside the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains. For a single season in 1976, Goldrush Junction was known simply as Goldrush. In 1977, the park would undergo yet another name change as well as a change in ownership. Jack and Pete Herschend of the Branson-based Herschend Enterprises purchased Goldrush, and it would now be known as Silver Dollar City, Tennessee.
The Herschend Family wasn't new to the attractions industry. Jack and Pete were born to Danish immigrant Hugo Herschend and his Chicago-born wife Mary. Together, the family had often traveled to Marvel Cave-Missouri's deepest-which had been opened to tourists in 1894 by the Lynch Family. In 1950, the Herschend Family entered into an agreement to lease Marvel Cave from the Lynch Family. They quickly cemented their commitment to expand the area with an early 1950s purchase of 640 acres around the cave. Hugo and Mary continued with plans to transform Marvel Cave into a major tourist attraction. Although Hugo passed away in 1955, Mary, Jack and Pete moved forward and began work on a cave train project. In 1958, their hard work was rewarded with the inaugural run of the world's only underground passenger cable train at the time.
On May 1, 1960, what had previously been known as Marvel Cave now marked its opening day as Silver Dollar City in Branson. The themed park featured five frontier-style buildings-a blacksmith shop, general store, ice cream parlor, doll shop, the Stage Coach Inn-as well as two reconstructed log buildings, the Wilderness Church and the McHaffie Homestead. Local entertainers played hillbilly music while the "Hatfields and McCoys" revived their legendary feud on Main Street. Employees costumed in 1880s attire became the "citizens" of Silver Dollar City. As for the theme park's name, it traces its origin to the 1960s when folks paid for everything in cash. The Herschends were encouraged to use silver dollars as change for transactions in the park. Thus, when vacationers spent the coins elsewhere and were asked where they had gotten the coins, they would reply "Silver Dollar City." The Herschends took the advice, appropriately coining the phrase "Silver Dollar City."
With Silver Dollar City, Branson up and running, the Herschend Corporation expanded into other themed entertainment ventures including White Water water parks; the Showboat Branson Belle, an exquisite paddle boat featuring dinner and entertainment; and the Grand Village shopping complex in Branson.
The Herschend Family was the proud owner of a winning concept. They captured the very heart and soul of the late-1800s Appalachian mountain people and their communities while also preserving the history and traditions of the area. With the success of Silver Dollar City, Branson well in hand, the Herschend Brothers looked eastward to their next endeavor.
Upon acquiring Goldrush in 1977, the Herschend Brothers contributed more than a million dollars in improvements on the way to opening Silver Dollar City, Tennessee in Pigeon Forge. Intent upon showcasing the craftsmanship of the Smoky Mountain region, guests entered near the park's train trestle, passed under the train tracks and entered Craftsman's Valley. The area was filled with talented artisans including blacksmiths, wood carvers, leather smiths and lye soap makers who showcased their crafts while demonstrating their trades. The park experienced significant growth over the next decade of operation including the addition of rides, shops, more craftsmen, shows and attractions like the Silver Dollar Grist Mill which was completed in 1983 and became the first working grist mill built in Tennessee in more than 100 years. The Herschend Brothers never compromised their commitment to the preservation of the Great Smoky Mountains' heritage and traditions.
In 1980, the park broadened its appeal as it expanded beyond Craftsman's Valley and the train depot with the addition of several rides. Silver Dollar City enjoyed steady growth in attendance and new additions to the park were made throughout the early 1980s. However, the Herschend Brothers soon welcomed another much-loved and recognizable East Tennessee tradition to the mix. Singer, songwriter and actress Dolly Parton, a Sevier County, Tennessee native and entertainment superstar, joined the Herschends in the theme park business in 1986. Not only would Dolly share her entertainment expertise and her love of the Great Smoky Mountains, she would also share her name as what had been Silver Dollar City opened in 1986 as Dollywood.
Since 1986, Dolly Parton and Herschend Family Enterprises have remained partners in Dollywood, Tennessee's most-visited tourist attraction. Dollywood also ranks in the Top 50 most attended theme parks worldwide. The park has more than doubled in size now encompassing 118 acres. An entirely new area, Rivertown Junction, was added for Dollywood's first season. Included in this area were Aunt Granny's-still Dollywood's most-visited restaurant-Dolly's Tennessee Mountain Home; the 450-seat Back Porch Theatre and the Smoky Mountain Rampage.
Dollywood also experienced tremendous increases in attendance, drawing 1.3 million visitors in 1986, an increase of approximately 75 percent as compared to Silver Dollar City's last season in 1985. Dollywood consistently entertains more than two million visitors annually (a 54 percent increase over its inaugural 1986 season and a 160 percent increase over its 1985 attendance.)
In the years since the Dollywood name has graced the theme park's main entrance, more than $110 million in expansions and additions are now visible as a result of Dollywood's ongoing commitment to offering guests something new each season. And, several old favorites continue to welcome guests including Klondike Katie, a 110-ton coal-fired steam train built in 1943 that still roams the tracks through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. And, the Robert F. Thomas Chapel remains but its significance to the park grew stronger after Dolly joined the family. It was Dr. Robert F. Thomas, the local Sevier County doctor, who one day delivered the fourth of twelve children to Lee and Avie Lee Parton-Dolly Rebecca Parton.
Visitors from across the country and around the world flock to the Pigeon Forge entertainment park to experience the heart and soul of the Great Smoky Mountains. Dollywood prides itself on "Creating Memories Worth Repeating®." By offering a blend of thrilling rides, spectacular shows and master craftsmen in the Great Smoky Mountain and presented by employees with a genuine interest in the guest's experience-all sprinkled with Dolly's own special brand of charm and appeal-Dollywood more than delivers.