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Wednesday, 23 August 2006 00:00

Huge crowd celebrates Ghost Town’s revival

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Hundreds of people ascended to Ghost Town, a beloved mountaintop amusement park in Maggie Valley, for an open house Monday celebrating news that the park will reopen next year.

The closure of the park three years ago after 40 years in business was more than a blow to the tourism economy of the region. Ghost Town’s closure also meant the loss of an icon and source of pride for the community. The park was put up for sale, but many had lost hope in a buyer willing to take on the chore of retrofitting the park for the 21st century.

News that such a buyer had indeed surfaced — and that the roller coaster and other rides would be whirring again as early as spring — generated so much excitement that more than 1,300 people clamored to attend the celebration. The chairlift that carries visitors to the park isn’t working, so busses were used to get people up the mountain. But there weren’t enough busses to accommodate the crowd. More than 750 people never got in, and instead were given free passes to the amusement park when it opens for good next year.

The centerpiece of Ghost Town isn’t just the rides, but a mock-up of an Old West town about two blocks long, lined with rustic storefronts, including an old saloon with swinging doors. Those streets came back to life Monday, courtesy of a few former Ghost Town employees. Cancan girls strolled the wooden boardwalks. Burly outlaws in cowboy hats and leather chaps loitered in doorways. Native dancers in feathered headdresses performed to drum beats.

Twice the team of old gunfighters sprang into action, staging showdowns in the middle of the street. The gunslingers practiced two hours a day for the past week to resurrect a couple of their old routines.

Children begged for autographs afterwards, while adults waved blue pennants handed out by the dozen at the front gate with the words “Ghost Town: Back on the map.”

“As you drive down the Valley you can feel the excitement. It’s in the air,” said Alice Aumen, owner of Cataloochee Ranch in Maggie Valley.

Message board signs in front of hotels that usually advertise low room rates, hot tubs or creek side rooms have been put to a new use these days. Hotel owners valley-wide have rearranged their lettering welcoming Ghost Town’s return.

“It’s like the sun has come out,” said Lillianne Chamberlin — better known as Miss Maggie for her roll strolling the sidewalks in a Miss Maggie costume waving to visitors. Chamberlin often served as an ambassador for visitors, who approached her on the sidewalk for tourist information. Her top question — as it is for any hotel, restaurant or shop owner in the Valley — is what happened to Ghost Town.

“They were always disappointed,” Chamberlin said. “A lot of them came here as kids and they wanted to share those memories with their children. They would say ‘we drove out to the parking lot and it was so sad to see no cars there and weeds growing up in it.’”

The reopening of Ghost Town isn’t just a tourism triumph. Local families, including Susie Thomas of Waynesville, are ecstatic.

“We now have Dollywood passes, so the thought of having something a lot closer is great,” said Thomas, 35, the director of First Methodist Church nursery.

Thomas brought her 5-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to the event, who were enamored by the gun fights and cancan dancers, respectively. Thomas envisions at least half a dozen trips a year to the park.

For the many of the area’s retirees, Ghost Town is a little extra fodder for luring the grandkids to come visit. At least that’s what George and Betty Freeland, second-home owners in Waynesville, are hoping.

“We’ve already emailed them about it,” George Freeland said, wasting no time priming the pump for a summer vacation here next year.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, said she got calls all last week from people across the country who heard rumors Ghost Town would be reopened. Joey’s, a Maggie Valley icon, was one place people turned for confirmation of the news.

Many were naturally skeptical of initial reports of Ghost Town’s sale. Rumors about a Ghost Town sale have swirled for a couple of years, and a few have been substantial enough to garner media attention. They all fell through – until now.

“I couldn’t hardly believe it at first there had been so many false rumors floating around,” said Kenneth Smith, 75, of Lake Junaluska, who came up to the event to see for himself.

Charles Brantley, a former Ghost Town employee, was also looking for affirmation of the sale beyond announcements in the media.

“When I saw that for sale sign come down, I knew it was for real then,” Brantley said. A “for sale” banner that had been draped over a billboard Ghost Town in the parking lot was indeed brought down when the deal closed.

Staying hopeful throughout the ups and downs of the past three years has been tough for some former employees.

“We just kept a hopin’,” said Johnny Freeman, a former gun fighter.

“Said a lot of prayers,” said Tim Mintz, also a former gun fighter.

But it was easy to lose hope during the ups and downs of the rumored sales.

“Last year we decided it wasn’t going to happen,” said Bernie Brannon, 80, who retired to Maggie Valley five years ago. Brannon has no vested interest in the park — he didn’t go there as a kid, didn’t work there and isn’t in the tourism business — but was excited enough by news of the sale to come to the festivities Monday.

Some of the rumored buyers over the past three years planned to do away with the amusement park and instead build a mountaintop resort with condos and homes. It was simply more lucrative. Many consider the community extremely lucky that a sale was brokered to group of businessmen in the amusement industry with plans to carry on the Ghost Town tradition.

“I was so glad it wasn’t going to be a development,” said Kenneth Winchester of Waynesville. “That was going to make me sick.”

Strangers walked up to Steve Nichols, one of the businessmen who bought the park, and gave him thank-you hugs throughout the day.

For Jim and Tammy Parker of Canton, Ghost Town is part of their heritage.

“We growed up on it,” Jim said. “It’s part of this county.”

They were so moved by the joy in the air during the event, they decided to renew their 25-year-old wedding vows in the chapel that’s part of the Old West mock-up town. They sought out a man dressed as a gun fighter and asked if he knew whether there was a preacher around. A man nearby in the crowd piped up that his father-in-law, Rev. Charles Hembree, would be arriving shortly. The Parker’s saw it as providence.

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Becky Johnson

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