Ghost Town in the Sky

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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.”
Ghost Town in the Sky
At one time, Ghost Town served as a worthy rival to the pre-Dollywood Silver Dollar City/Goldrush Junction theme parks. As Dollywood and Pigeon Forge soared, Ghost Town began fading.
Ghost Town

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. 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.

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.

Ghost Town
When construction began in 1960, over 200 locals were hired to build the 40 replica buildings that comprised the Western Town, located at the mountain’s peak.
Ghost Town
Approximately 300,000 feet of lumber, 200,000 feet of plywood, and 20,000 pounds of nails went into the construction of Ghost Town.
Ghost Town
The town was completed in May 1961 and consists of about 120,000 square feet of building space.
Ghost Town
Ghost Town in the Sky

Ghost Town in the Sky

Ghost Town in the Sky

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Ghost Town in the Sky

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. 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. The amusement park 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.

Ghost Town
Ghost Town
Ghost Town
The roller 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.
Ghost Town
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.
Ghost Town
Ghost Town
The coaster 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, 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. However, 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.

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Ghost Town
Ghost Town
Ghost Town
Ghost Town
Ghost Town
Ghost Town in the Sky

In February 2010, a massive mudslide occurred on the mountain after retaining walls on the property failed. Although there were no injuries, 40 homes had to be evacuated and several 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 of the park for $1.5 million. New regulations required her to spend millions 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.

Ghost Town in the Sky
Ghost Town
Ghost Town
Ghost Town

In 2013, the amusement park 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 actually 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. In 2015, the park announced a rebranding to Ghost Town Village. This was in part due to the inability to reopen any of the rides or rollercoasters due to the repair costs. However, the park never reopened. Local news outlets anticipated a reopening in 2019, but that never happened. Today, the park remains closed, although work is underway by a team of new investors to restore the former amusement park in the hopes of one day reopening.

In August 2021, a key person working on the redevelopment of Ghost Town made a rare public speaking appearance and explained basic plans in front of the local Chamber of Commerce that involve an investment of up to $200 million. More information, including a specific timeline and date to reopen, will be available in early 2022. The water and sewer issues that plagued the park are resolved, clearing the way for improvements. The park’s main street, home to the Red Dog Saloon, a jail, and several cafes, will be gutted and completely redone. The ground floor of the buildings will be home to unique shops and boutiques, and possibly even some brand-name retail or dining outlets. The second floor of those buildings will be sold or leased as condominiums for residential use. At the base of Buck Mountain, a new hotel will be constructed and will have a lodge-like appearance to blend in with the environment. Behind the lodge will be small vacation rental cottages. There is no word yet on what will become of the original rides. There are rumors of the addition of a Ferris wheel.

A heavy level of skepticism remains as previous attempts have appeared promising only to fail. The process will be fascinating, even if they only get the doors open. The nostalgia factor alone could bring in thousands of people who grew up going to Maggie Valley. These folks would love to share their experience with their kids and grandkids. A big part of the resurrection plans is better infrastructure and housing plans to help Maggie Valley become a tourist destination. Roughly 200 employees would be required to run the new Ghost Town in the Sky. The area needs affordable housing, restaurants, a grocery store, and an urgent care center to support the local economy and the park.

Ghost Town
Ghost Town
As beautiful as Maggie Valley is, doubts remain whether it can attract the number of tourists needed to support the amusement park.
Maggie Valley

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53 comments

  1. Ghost Town in the Sky is still owned 100% by Lula, LLC, that Alaska Presley owns 100%. There has been publicity claiming it was sold in 2018 but that contract was never consummated. The park is no longer under contract but there is interest from other investors yet no deal has been reached.

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      1. It is under contract. A deal has been made. It is not the 2018 contract but a new buyer came forward in late 2019.

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    1. Thank You so much for sharing this story, or should I say Legend. I’m so sorry that “Ghost Town in the sky, closed down so many times however, the owner’s tried & tried again. However we all know what the constant battle of higher costs for updates to the systems, and not to mention, that everyone had their hand in the Ghost Town in the sky- “wallet.” It’s a shame.
      I give ALL the people that were employed there at various times, an applause for their efforts to assist others, and the guests that come there to this high mountain top, just to have fun.

      In addition, I must mention that the photography of the Ghost Town is Spectacular!! What perfect views, and of course the mountain view in it’s self…Awesome!!! WONDERFUL!!!
      Note: I like this story, and Haunted Places…Interesting.

      Have a Great Day!!
      Respectfully,
      Karen E. Crudele (Canandaigua, N.Y.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Might try selling it to Disney. They have deep pockets, and are always looking for another way to make money.

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  3. Was there in 1970 at the age of 10, such a great family vacation then. So sad to see it go through so many hands, changes, and failures to re-open.

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  4. We were there in Maggie valley & decided to stop & have a look at ghost town & we noticed some one has started cleaning up the property & there appears to be work going on going on other places there ! We wonder if there is something in the works ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hope that Ghost Town can open again someday….I took my grandson to the property this summer and he saw it so abandoned and deteriorated …he expressed that he would like it to open again someday so he can get to visit it when things and rides are working and kept well. It’s really an amazing location and has a lot of potential.

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    1. Not at this time. There will be homes available in the future. I’m not at liberty to give you the particulars or a time frame as yet.

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  5. My family and I went on vacation to Maggie Valley when I was a child. I believe it was 1981-82? I loved Ghost Town in the Sky. I fell in love with a native boy that was in the indigenous dance ceremony. Our eyes locked many times. He would find us around the park here and there and when I would catch a glimpse of him, we exchanged sweet smiles. As a young tween, I was instantly smitten. I always thought about him over the years and hoped we would meet again someday. But that dream was never meant to be. Ahh, to be young again.

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  6. Wonderful family vacation memories in Ghost Town Maggie Valley! Would love for my grandchildren to experience the way vacations were in the wild west times. Miss Ghost Town!

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  7. I played in Eddie Nash’s show in 1973 and in the Garmon Hines Show in 1978. I love that park and i have many memories . We would eat at Joey’s pancake house for Breakfast. My wife and I visit the Valley ever so often. It is my prayer the park will one day again reopen and thrive. We have taken our grandchildren up to the park for years

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought I remembered seeing something about this place when I moved to the area in 2008. I hope someone does renovate & operate it again.

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  9. I do hope things will work out that Ms. Alaska will be able to get funding and help to reopen the town. Would be so great if it could be opened back up in original state.
    In the original opening if the town there were 5 members of my family that worked there, from night watchman, store manager, gunfighter, saloon waitress, to other things.
    Was a great drawer for many years, people came from everywhere to be part of the great times that were had there.
    To Alaska:. Please put it back in it’s original state and see what happens, you might be surprised.
    As we all know it’s name is GHOST TOWN……..
    Bring a ghost town back to life.

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    1. It is a no brainer there is nothing around here for families to come to now . I believe with refinishing the parks nostalgic history and maybe try and bring some new attractions along with it.This place would become a huge family attraction and would continue to make family memories for generations I myself was a child and now 47 And remeber it as one of my all time favorite memories In all my life. I hope to of brought my own children there one day but I never got the chance.please make historic and precious memories for so many of us possible again maybe The outside investor isn’t such a bad idea Disney im sure would bring the originalality and new ideas with a comfort of safety it needs. Bring back western Carolinas only fun thing to do….

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  10. That would be awesome if they get this unusual and unique attraction to reopen. I remember driving by a few years ago and my gf told me the story of how she went as a kid. Home sites??? We plan to retire somewhere in the NC mountains within the next few years. How do we get hooked up to any info about? Thanks for the story.

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  11. Went there in the 60’s and in 72-73. Never got to take my son. Great place to learn about the old West and about the mountains. Hope they get it back together and the public is able to once again enjoy something so magnificent!!!

    Cheryl Whicker

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  12. I’m 60 years old, My mother and father took my brother and sister and I to Ghost Town in the sky when I was about 9 years old, I loved it, enjoyed it, just rode by it with my three grand children on the way to yogi bear campground they hadn’t opened for season yet,new that though, just riding and looking, rode on up to Gatlinburg TN, anyway I had to tell my grand children about Ghost Town in the sky and how I hated it closed , brought back memories pray it reopens one day

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  13. I loved this place. As a kid we went there every year from 93-00 and then in 2004 we t up to Maggie Valley and she was closed down. Very sad indeed hopefully they will get her up and running again….

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  14. I use to love coming here it was an awesome place I came here every year with my mom and 2 aunts we always had so much fun here I really hope that ghost town in the sky opens up again soon people don’t know what they are missing I am just heartbroken to see it like this so sad 😞

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  15. Does anyone remember the animatronics that was in America’s music Hall? Like what they did and what their names were and any other information about the animatronics.

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  16. My family and I went therein the early 1970s, probably about 1972. I actually liked it better than Silver Dollar City which has since been changed to Dollywood.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Worked there as a Can Can Dancer in 1975 and 76. Had a wonderful time there. So sad to see it closed for so long. Was a really great place to go.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Any news on big Dan lake or the riverboat ? I think it was located in meadows of dan . either n.c. or va.

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  19. I have a picture of myself from 1966 or 1967 riding that chairlift sitting in the middle between my mom and dad. I looked a bit ‘afraid’!

    Liked by 1 person

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