Posted by Phil Rodgers in Pigeon Forge
If you had driven through Pigeon Forge 50 years ago, you probably wouldn't have envisioned what that small town on the way to Gatlinburg would evolve into over the next five decades. Few cities experience that type of growth, but thanks to the tourism industry, Pigeon Forge (like Gatlinburg and Sevierville) has seen an incredible level of expansion.
But let's start at the beginning. Many of the first white settlers in the area were Revolutionary War veterans who were given land grants and were seeking homesteads for their new families. Some settlers likely singled out the area because it was on the Great Indian Path between Virginia and the Cherokee nation. Among the town's early pioneers were Samuel Wear (whom Wears Valley was named after), John McMahan, Isaac Love and Mordecai Lewis.
The town's name is attributed to two things: an iron forge that had been established near the Little Pigeon River by Isaac Love in 1817; and the passenger pigeon, a now-extinct bird that was so common at the time that flocks of them were said to darken the sky. The birds would perch in the local beech trees, so much so that the trees' limbs were stripped of their bark.
One of the town's enduring icons, the Old Mill, was established in the 1830s and still stands today as a tourist attraction, grinding out meals and flours just the way it did nearly 200 years ago. The site also served as the town post office for a period of time.
Progress came slowly to Pigeon Forge from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. The first telephone was installed in 1898, and soon, auto and train transportation came to the area. The town also saw the addition of another blacksmith shop, a steam-powered planning mill, more churches, an elementary school and a cannery.
Between 1952 and 1956, a two-lane highway, the Parkway, was paved, and Pigeon Forge Pottery was growing in popularity; it had been one of the area's first businesses that catered specifically to the growing number of tourists headed toward Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg. The Norma Dan Motel, which is still in business today, opened in 1958.
Tourism really began to take off in the '60s, and land prices increased accordingly. Soon, the town was incorporated, and Rebel Railroad - the attraction that would later evolve into modern-day Dollywood - made its debut. The site would also be known as Goldrush Junction and Silver Dollar City before making its final transformation into one of the South's premier amusement parks.
Pigeon Forge's first fast-food restaurant, Burger King, arrived in the early '70s as did attractions like Porpoise Island, Tommy Bartlett's Water Circus, Magic World, Ogle's Waterpark, none of which have survived the test of time. However, businesses like Flyaway Indoor Skydiving, Hillbilly Village and the Family Inns chain also hit the scene and have managed to survive through the decades.
The 1980s saw two watershed events that impacted the town's growth. One was the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, which generated large numbers of visitors who branched out to see the Smoky Mountains. The other was the opening of Dollywood in 1986. From that point on, the growth was exponential, and the Parkway was widened to three lanes in each direction.
Pigeon Forge continues to grow, and Goats on the Roof, located on Wears Valley Road, is among the many attractions, restaurants and shops that have benefitted from that growth. Each year, some 10 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains and a significant number of them make Pigeon Forge a part of that vacation experience.