Ghost Town in the Sky was the vision of businessman R.B. Coburn, a Virginia native who moved to Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Coburn was inspired to create a Western-themed amusement park after visiting several ghost towns in the American West. In 1960, he purchased Buck Mountain at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains for the location of his new attraction. The park was designed by Russell Pearson and constructed at a cost of $1 million. When construction began in 1960, over 200 locals were hired to build the 40 replica buildings that comprised the Western Town, which is located at the mountain’s peak. The town was completed in May 1961 and consists of about 120,000 square feet of building space. Approximately 300,000 feet of lumber, 200,000 feet of plywood, and 20,000 pounds of nails went into the construction of Ghost Town. The park is divided into several towns located at different elevations of the mountain, each with a different theme. Each hour a gunfight was staged in the middle of the street with guests lining up to watch. The heart of the park is the Old West town that includes two saloons, a school, a bank, jail, and church.
Ghost Town in the Sky opened on May 1, 1961, and quickly became one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. It was promoted as “North Carolina’s mile-high theme park.” New rides and attractions were added throughout the years. At its peak, Ghost Town attracted over 400,000 visitors each season. A double incline railway was constructed to bring visitors to the top of Buck Mountain. The incline was created with a 25-ton bulldozer attached to a winch secured to another bulldozer, which pulled the bulldozer up the mountain. The railway created an exciting ride up to the top of the mountain with varying slopes ranging from 30 to 77 degrees. Tourists could only reach the mountaintop amusement park by riding the incline railway or the chairlift up to the top. In the spring of 1962, a two-seat chairlift was added parallel to the incline railway to take visitors up the mountain. The chairlift is the longest in North Carolina and the second-longest in the United States. It moves at a rate of 310 feet per minute and scales 3,370 feet.
Under R.B. Coburn’s ownership, Ghost Town suffered from a lack of maintenance and mismanagement. Since the chairlift and incline railway are the only ways tourists can access the park, they both required constant repair. Coburn spent thousands maintaining both. In July 2002, the chairlift malfunctioned, leaving passengers stranded for over two hours in the rain. A few days later, Coburn decided to close the park and sell the property. Ghost Town sat empty and unmaintained for the next four years, giving many the impression that nobody would buy the park due to the condition of the rides. Without proper security in place, the park was subject to vandalism.
R.B. Coburn sold Ghost Town in 1973, but bought it back a decade later in 1986. In 1988, he hired Hopkins Rides to build a new $2 million steel roller coaster on the side of Buck Mountain. The new coaster was part of a park refurbishing plan by Coburn. He hoped the new attraction would bring in 25-30% more guests. Unfortunately, its summer opening was delayed due to construction and harsh weather conditions. The Red Devil, featuring a red and white paint scheme, opened in September 1988 with little fanfare.
The coaster operated until the closure of the park in 2002. It was repainted yellow and renamed the Cliff Hanger for the reopening of the 2007 season, however the ride remained closed due to necessary state code updates. It eventually reopened in June 2009, but two days later, the ride closed after inspectors found a hairline crack on one of the train’s frames. The ride reopened in October 2009, but closed a few days later after more mechanical issues. The Cliff Hanger, like many of the rides in the park, garnered a reputation for constantly breaking down.
In 2009, after $11 million had been spent, $6 million of that on the Cliff Hanger roller coaster, Ghost Town filed for bankruptcy. The Great Recession of 2008 was blamed for the park’s problems, but owners insisted the park would reopen and would continue to operate. By May 2009, the rides had not been inspected and the owners needed $330,000 in order to reopen. Failure to secure a loan was expected to mean the loss of 200 jobs and a loss of revenue for local businesses from park visitors. An anonymous donor provided the money which allowed Ghost Town to reopen for the 2009 season. Soon after, the park struggled to make payroll and employees complained they were not being paid. The kiddy rides and the Wild West town were operational, but rides that attracted a more adult crowd like the Cliff Hanger roller coaster and the drop tower failed to pass state inspections.
In February 2010, a massive mudslide occurred after retaining walls on the property failed. Although there were no injuries, forty homes had to be evacuated and three were damaged. Ghost Town itself sustained damage, but to what extent is publicly unknown. After the incident, the local news announced the park would reopen on Memorial Day weekend but that did not happen. A month later, a judge ruled to proceed with foreclosure and sell the property at auction.
Ghost Town was sold in February 2012 at public auction to Alaska Presley, a local businesswoman and long-time supporter for $1.5 million. New laws required her to spend millions of dollars on labor and time lost due to state inspections. Another issue arose when it was discovered the water was never shut off after the park closed, so the old pipes were subject to the mountain freeze-and-thaw cycle. Wells for private water were condemned because they were too close to potentially unacceptable objects. Four new wells were drilled and all were failures except one of limited output. Ultimately, the option of city water was decided which meant virtually every part of the old system had to be replaced.
In 2013, Ghost Town was fined $2,000 by the Labor Department after an actor was injured by shrapnel from a shotgun blast in a staged gunfight. Investigators discovered the actors were using real .45 caliber revolvers and a real shotgun loaded with blanks instead of prop guns capable of only firing blanks.
A year later, in 2014, Alaska Presley listed a lower portion of the property, that includes the Old West town, for sale for $3 million. Presley planned to redevelop the upper portion as a “Holy Land replica theme park.” The listing was taken off the market a few months later due to no interest. In an effort to deter vandalism, Presley hired security guards and placed cameras on the mountain.
The park announced a rebranding to Ghost Town Village, due to the inability to reopen any of the roller coasters or rides due to repair costs in 2015. However, due to years of vandalism and neglect, the park remains closed. A local newspaper anticipated Ghost Town to reopen in 2019. Today, the park remains closed, although work is underway by a team of new investors to restore Ghost Town in the hopes of one day reopening.