Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge TN are two of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States today! However, our Smoky Mountain cities weren’t always major travel hubs. Both Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge began as rural, pioneer communities filled with men and women who defied the odds to build a better future for their families. To help you prepare for your next vacation in the Smokies, we’ve put together some of the top historic events you should learn about before you come! Here are 8 huge moments in Gatlinburg history and Pigeon Forge history:
1. William Ogle Visits “The Land of Paradise”
Way back in 1802, a man named William Ogle traveled from South Carolina to the future site of Gatlinburg TN, a place he called “The Land of Paradise.” Envisioning a new life for himself, his wife Martha Jane, and their seven children, Ogle chopped down some local timber and fashioned logs for a new home. Sadly, William fell ill when he returned to South Carolina and passed away in 1803.
Determined not to let her husband’s efforts be in vain, Martha Jane brought her family to the Smokies in 1807 and finished building the cabin that William had started five years earlier. This historic cabin, the first log home ever built in Gatlinburg, is still standing and is available for viewing at the Gatlinburg Welcome Center. Visitors love seeing this important part of Gatlinburg history!
2. Isaac Love Builds an Iron Forge
Roughly 5 miles away from the Ogle cabin, another Smoky Mountain community was starting to find its identity. In 1817, a businessman named Isaac Love built an iron forge on the West Fork of the Little Pigeon River. Love had inherited this pristine riverside property from his father-in-law and decided to take advantage of Tennessee’s tax incentives for the creation of iron works on land that wasn’t ideal for farming. Isaac Love’s forge produced bars of iron, building equipment, and farming implements that were sold across the United States.
3. The Old Mill Makes Its Debut
In 1830, Isaac Love and his sons constructed a grist mill beside his iron forge. This mill became an important resource for local farmers, who used it to grind their grain into flour. When the community’s first post office was established at the grist mill in 1841, the burgeoning town received the name “Pigeon Forge,” taking inspiration from the iron forge on the Little Pigeon River. While the iron forge is no longer standing, The Old Mill is still in operation today and attracts over 1 million annual visitors.
4. Radford Gatlin Lends His Name
We return now to White Oak Flats, the town that was founded by the Ogle family near the beginning of the 19th century. The community would keep this name until the 1850s when Radford Gatlin came to town. Gatlin ran the town’s general store, and when the area’s first post office was established in his shop, the whole town was soon referred to as “Gatlinburg.” Despite his famous name, Gatlin was despised by his neighbors and he was ultimately beaten and chased out of town in 1859.
5. Civil War Comes to the Smokies
The Civil War was one of the most harrowing times in Gatlinburg history and Pigeon Forge history. The Smoky Mountain cities were largely pro-Union, but Tennessee had elected to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy in 1861.
While Gatlinburg tried to remain neutral when war broke out, the city was eventually occupied by Confederate troops who wanted to mine saltpeter (a key ingredient in gunpowder) from nearby Alum Cave. The Confederate Army was forced out of Gatlinburg in 1863 after the Battle of Burg Hill. Over in Pigeon Forge, The Old Mill was used as a makeshift hospital and a quasi-factory for the production of Union Army uniforms.
6. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Born
Jumping ahead, the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 had a profound effect on the cities of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. For the first time, people from around the country were coming to East Tennessee to take in the area’s breathtaking natural beauty. Improvements to U.S. Route 441 in the following decades made the Smokies a much more accessible destination. Today, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the country, drawing millions of annual visitors.
7. Rebel Railroad Pulls into Pigeon Forge
In 1961, Pigeon Forge’s first theme park opened its doors. Known as Rebel Railroad, this attraction was introduced by Grover and Harry Robbins of North Carolina. The park was famous for its coal-fired steam engine, a.k.a. Klondike Katie. In 1970, Rebel Railroad was purchased by Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, who renamed the park Goldrush Junction. The attraction changed hands once again in 1977 when the Herschend Family rebranded the park as Silver Dollar City.
8. Dollywood Opens and the People Rejoice
In 1982, country superstar (and Smoky Mountain native) Dolly Parton accepted a deal to become a co-owner of Silver Dollar City. In May of 1986, the theme park reopened as Dollywood, and the attraction was an immediate success. 1.3 million people showed up on Dollywood’s opening day, more than twice the numbers Silver Dollar City had recorded the previous year. More than three decades later, Dollywood is Tennessee’s #1 ticketed attraction.
Where to Stay in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge
Now that you’ve had a crash course in Gatlinburg history and Pigeon Forge history, it’s time to start planning your getaway! Offering everything from 1 bedroom cabins to 15 bedroom lodges, we are sure to have the perfect property for your escape. To start planning your vacation, browse our selection of cabins in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.