Ghost Town in the Sky was the vision of businessman R.B. Coburn, a Covington, 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, Coburn purchased Buck Mountain at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains for the location of his theme park. Ghost Town in the Sky was designed by Russell Pearson and constructed at a cost of $1 million.
The park 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. Ghost Town attracted millions of guests. At its peak in the 1970s, Ghost Town attracted over 400,000 visitors each season. Ghost Town was sold in 1973 to National Services in a stock swap, but Coburn bought it back in 1986 and constructed the park’s famous roller coaster. Under Coburn’s ownership, the park suffered from a lack of maintenance and mismanagement. Ghost Town garnered a reputation for the rides constantly breaking down. The chairlift and incline railway also required constant maintenance and repair. Coburn spent thousands of dollars maintaining both.
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.
On July 16, 2002, the chairlift malfunctioned, leaving passengers stranded for over two hours in the rain. Coburn decided to close Ghost Town a few days after the chairlift failure and put the property up for sale. The park remained closed 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, the park was subject to vandalism.
In 2009, after $11 million had been spent, $6 million of that on the Cliffhanger 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 claimed to need a loan for $330,000 in order to reopen. Failure to secure the loan was expected to mean the loss of 200 jobs and a loss of revenue for local businesses from park visitors. Ghost Town reopened for the 2009 season after an anonymous donor provided the money. The park struggled to make payroll and complaints began that employees were not being paid.
In February 2010, a massive mudslide occurred when retaining walls on Ghost Town property gave way. Although there were no injuries, 40 homes had to be evacuated and 3 were damaged. The park itself sustained damage, but to what extent is publicly unknown. It was announced on the local news the park would reopen on Memorial Day weekend but that did not happen. A month later, a judge ruled to proceed with foreclosure on Ghost Town and sell the property at auction. Ghost Town remained closed for the 2010 season.
Ghost Town was purchased in February 2012 at public auction by Alaska Presley, a local businesswoman and long-time supporter, for $1.5 million. New laws required millions of dollars to be spent on labor and time lost due to state inspections. The previous owners did not shut off the water 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. The option of city water was decided which meant virtually every part of the old system had to be replaced.
In 2014, the lower half of the property that includes the Old West town was listed 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. In 2015, the park announced the rebranding of the park to Ghost Town Village. The rebranding was due to the park’s inability to reopen any of the former roller coasters and rides due to repair costs. A local newspaper anticipated the park to reopen in 2019. However, due to years of vandalism and neglect, the park remains closed.