Early Pigeon Forge History
The name “Pigeon Forge” comes from an iron forge built by Isaac Love (1783-1854) sometime around 1820. The name of this forge referred to its location along the Little Pigeon River, in the vicinity of what is now the Old Mill. The name of the river comes from the flocks of Passenger Pigeons that frequented its banks at the time of the first Euro-American settlers’ arrival.
For centuries, the Cherokee used the valley where Pigeon Forge is now located as a hunting ground. A Cherokee footpath known as the Indian Gap Trail crossed the Great Smokies from North Carolina, and passed through the Pigeon Forge valley en route to its junction with the Great Indian Warpath in modern Sevierville (US-441 closely parallels this ancient trail, although it crests the mountains at Newfound Gap rather than Indian Gap). From Sevierville, the Warpath headed west toward the Overhill Cherokee towns along the Little Tennessee River.
The Indian Gap Trail brought the first Europeans to the Pigeon Forge area in the early 18th century. Along with hunters and trappers from North Carolina, traders from Virginia had passed through the valley before 1750. Sometime after 1783, Colonel Samuel Wear (1753-1817) became the first permanent Euro-American settler in the Pigeon Forge area. Wear, a veteran of the American Revolution, erected a small fort near the confluence of Walden Creek and the Little Pigeon River (what is now Pigeon Forge City Park). The fort provided a safe stopover for the early pioneers in the Sevier County area. Wear would later serve as a member of the committee that drafted Tennessee’s state constitution.
In 1785, the Cherokee signed the Treaty of Dumplin, ceding much of what is now Sevier County to the United States. Among the first to take advantage of this was Robert Shields (1740-1802), who received a survey for a tract of land in the Pigeon Forge area from the Watauga Land Office in 1786. Shields, who like Wear was a veteran of the Revolution, established a small fort along Middle Creek (near what is now Dollywood). Shields’ son would later write that the fort was 100 feet long and 16 feet wide, with 12-foot walls constructed with “heavy logs.” The fort contained living quarters for six families, with a common kitchen at one end and a common living room at the other. As his family grew, Shields constructed separate houses for his children, one of which was purchased by Horatio Butler in 1797 and remained with his descendants until being torn down in 1994.
Although the Shields Fort was too far from the main Cherokee trails to ever experience a serious assault, the Wear Fort straddled the Indian Gap Trail, making it a popular target for small bands of Cherokee warriors. After the Cherokee attacked his fort in 1793, a frustrated Wear led a band of 60 frontiersmen across the northwestern Smokies into the Overhill Cherokee region. The frontiersmen attacked and destroyed the town of Tallassee (near modern day Chilhowee Dam), killing at least fifteen Cherokees and capturing several others.. In 1794, the Cherokee fired on Wear and his two sons just outside of Calvin’s Blockhouse (near Maryville), although the Wears escaped unharmed.
While treaties negotiated at the Tellico Blockhouse in 1794 and 1798 brought calm to the region, sporadic fighting between Cherokees and the settlers continued. One notable incident occurred in 1800, when the son of Barefoot Runyan (1749-1845) and Margaret Rambo (who had settled near the heart of modern Pigeon Forge) was killed by a Cherokee warrior. The recently-elected Governor Archibald Roane was forced to personally intervene to prevent retaliatory strikes.
The commercial boom
In the early 1900s, Pigeon Forge was an isolated mountain hamlet with no major roads. The nearest railroad station was in Sevierville. Bridges were also rare, the only major water crossings being a string of fords along the Little Pigeon.
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was opened in 1934, the Tennessee Valley Authority reported that there were no tourism-oriented businesses in Pigeon Forge. By the 1950s, improvements to US-441 led to the establishment of a few campgrounds and lodges, but little that would generate major revenue. During this period, however, two factors in nearby Gatlinburg would lead to the commercial boom Pigeon Forge would experience in the latter half of the 20th century. First, Gatlinburg, itself surrounded by high mountain ridges, had limited land resources. Second, the land resources it did have were largely controlled by a few local families who thwarted attempts by outside businesses to take advantage of the town’s prime location. Thus, outside entrepreneurs were forced to look elsewhere. Pigeon Forge, being just north of Gatlinburg along US-441, was the obvious target.
In 1961, shortly after Pigeon Forge officially incorporated, North Carolina brothers Grover and Harry Robbins opened Rebel Railroad in the town’s Middle Creek area. The railroad simulated a ride on a Confederate steam train that was under attack by Union soldiers during the Civil War, playing upon the centennial of the war that was sweeping the country at the time.
After the Union assault was beaten back, the railroad came to a stop at a mock-frontier mountain town, complete with blacksmith shop, general store, and saloon. By 1964, the Civil War Centennial was beginning to die down, so the Robbins brothers decided to rename Rebel Railroad Goldrush Junction. The attraction was reworked with a “Wild West” theme replacing the Civil War theme, in similar fashion to the Robbins’ other tourist train ride in North Carolina, Tweetsie Railroad. Goldrush Junction was much more successful than Rebel Railroad had ever been, prompting the Robbins to buy a log flume amusement ride and erect it on the property in 1967.
In 1969, after Pigeon Forge issued a zoning plan assigning the entire strip along US-441 for tourism use, Art Modell (owner of the Cleveland Browns) purchased Goldrush Junction. In 1976, Modell sold the Junction to the Herschend Brothers of Branson, Missouri. The Herschends renamed the park Silver Dollar City after their successful theme park in Branson. The Ozark mountain theme of the Branson location was easily reapplied as an Appalachian theme in Pigeon Forge, and the park’s attendance began to climb.
In 1982, hoping the capitalize on the publicity generated by the Knoxville World’s Fair, Pigeon Forge initiated an aggressive economic plan that centered around theme parks, outlet malls, and live music venues. The first outlet mall, Factory Merchants, opened that same year. By 1987, there were four outlet malls in Pigeon Forge, and by the early 1990s, outlet malls provided 44% of the town’s gross revenue.
The increasing number of tourist attractions brought competition for Silver Dollar City and its chief competitor in Pigeon Forge, Magic World, which had constructed a theme park on the slopes of Pine Mountain in the city’s south section. In 1985, the Herschends approached entertainer Dolly Parton (who was born in nearby Sevierville) with a proposal for a partnership in the promotion and operation of Silver Dollar City. After lengthy negotiations, Parton became a minority partner in the enterprise, and Silver Dollar City was renamed Dollywood to kick off a major marketing campaign. The move proved successful as Dollywood continued expansion into the 21st century. Magic World folded in 1994.
While the commercial boom in Pigeon Forge vastly increased the town’s revenue, it had several undesirable effects. As land value skyrocketed, many farmers could no longer afford the accompanying high property taxes and were forced to sell their land. The high cost of living in a resort town is difficult to offset with the low wage jobs that often accompany the tourist industry.
Car and truck shows
Pigeon Forge has become the southeast mecca for car and truck enthusiasts. The calendar of car and truck show events runs from April through September and has included the following:
- Spring Grand Rod Run
- Chevy/GMC Truck Nationals
- Hooter’s GMC/Chevy Truckin’ Nationals
- Annual Smoky Mountain Classic Chevy Roundup
- Great Smoky Mountain Truck Show
- Silver Dollar Open Rod Run
- Pontiac Car Club Show
- Camaro, Chevelle, Nova Nationals
- Cobra Mustang Club
- Shades of the Past Rod Run Show
- Fall Grand Rod Run
- Smoky Mountain Model-A Car Rally