August 27, 2022
Pigeon Forge is a small tourist town full of beautiful scenery, family attractions and mystery. Okay, the last thing maybe not so much. The town may not be the most mysterious in Tennessee, but I'd bargain that it is one of the most interesting. Now, I am a sucker for history and have picked up some interesting tidbits about the Smoky Mountain outskirts in my time. So, here are my top seven fun and interesting facts about Pigeon Forge.
While I'm sure this detail isn't too surprising to you, the growth of the park since its original conception in 1961 is rather interesting. Dollywood didn't spring up overnight, and the attraction in its place only offered one thing to do: a train ride through the Smokies. Of course, this ride was the precursor to our beloved Dollywood Express and laid the foundation for where we are now. The park originated as Rebel Railroad in 1961 before a name change to Goldrush Junction in 1970. The Herschend Family bought the park in 1976, changing the name to simply Goldrush for the '76 season. They changed it again to Silver Dollar City, Tennessee in 1977. Finally, Dolly came along in 1986, to partner with the Herschend Family, ushering in the Dollywood we know and love today. Now, Dollywood is the most visited ticketed attraction in Pigeon Forge and the state of Tennessee, along with being one of the most visited theme parks in the entire country.
1988 photo of the Showstreet Expansion at Dollywood
Not to be confused with our beloved Dollywood Grist Mill, the Historic Old Mill is a treasure trove of Pigeon Forge facts and pastime. Built in 1830, the mill has taken on many roles in the small town. From its original intention as a flour mill to its time as the city's post office, to its 11-year stint producing power for the town of Pigeon Forge, the Old Mill has lived a very interesting life. The site has played a crucial role in the community and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.
Early 1900's photo of the Historic Old Mill
Being so close to the Carolinas, East Tennessee was one of the first areas of expansion for the newly-formed United States after the Revolutionary War. Land of what is now eight counties of modern-day East Tennessee were offered by North Carolina in 1784 to the U.S. government for the formation of a new state called Franklin (In honor of Benjamin Franklin). The proposition for the 14th State failed to get two-thirds of the vote from Congress and was disbanded. Tennessee would later join the Union in 1796.
Proposed Map of the State of Franklin
The naming process for Pigeon Forge is a unique and to-the-point story. The river running through the town had long been named after the passenger pigeons that roosted in its banks. Although now extinct, enough of these creatures frequented the area to name the river Little Pigeon River. A long-standing forge had been built adjacent to the Old Mill in 1817 and was a pillar of the early settler community. Eventually, the pigeons combined with the forge to create the iconic town name.
Scenic Little Pigeon River
The Parkway, U.S Route 441, is known today as the main strip through town connecting Sevierville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This tourist highway was almost an airway of sorts. In 1957, a new national airport was proposed to be created off of this central hub. With close proximities to Knoxville and the national park, the plans originally gained some traction. Eventually, the people of Pigeon Forge shot down the development, and the parkway was left for future expansions to take over.
Aerial view of the Pigeon Forge Parkway in 1966
It's estimated that just more than 6,000 people live in Pigeon Forge as full-time residents. That is a pretty small number considering more than nine million tourists come to the town annually. That's about 1,500 tourists for every one resident, give or take a few. Pigeon Forge's tourism benefits in large part from the neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the growth of Dollywood as a world-class theme park destination.
Robertson's Garage and Gas Station, one of the first public fueling stops in the town of Pigeon Forge
I have saved my personal favorite Pigeon Forge fact for last. As tourism began to boom in the area, a hodge-podge of new stores and shows cropped up in the once isolated farmland. One such site was Porpoise Island. While a whole post could be written about this unique installation of tiki-culture in the middle of the Smokies, I'll give the quick hits. The show operated in the summer from 1972-84, performers were flown in from Hawaii and dolphins from Mississippi. The attraction was located on what is now The Island and featured Hawaiian stage shows, a deer ranch and an exotic talking bird show among other things. It has largely faded into obscurity and is a great example of the many lost Smoky Mountain attractions.
Promotional brochure from Porpoise Island
Pigeon Forge truly is a one-of-a-kind destination. From its early beginnings as a settler's town to its rampant tourism growth in the 1950s and 60s. Dollywood is proud to call the Smokies its home, and little facts about Pigeon Forge like these remind us of our roots.
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