Gunfights and glory at Ghost Town in the Sky
Our time in North Carolina was so full of interesting things that it was hard to find time to do them all justice. We had made a checklist of activities and crossed a few things off as we got to them; Cherokee, Cataloochie, hooch... the list remained daunting. The alluringly beautiful Maggie Valley was calling.
‘Why not visit Ghost Town in the Sky while you’re there?’ It was Russ Parker, a local businessman and photographer operating a franchise in this popular tourist destination.
Ghost Town is unusual in that it is situated some 1,400 metres above sea level close to the top of Buck mountain. Visitors must ascend the final 380 metres by means of a kilometre-long chair-lift – quite an experience in itself. The view across Maggie Valley to the mountains beyond is nothing short of spectacular. We were accompanied during our chair-lift journey by numerous butterflies, including swallowtails and black monarchs, while diverse bird species filled the trees either side of us.
Originally developed more than half a century ago, this Wild West Frontier-type theme park has enjoyed a chequered history; at one time it was North Carolina’s top visitor attraction, hosting in excess of 600,000 guests annually. In more recent times, it has endured financial difficulties, with more ups and downs than its famous (and sadly disused) roller coaster, the Cliffhanger.
Russ gave us an effusive welcome and gave us the Executive Tour of the area, explaining in detail the Scots-Irish links to this part of the Smoky Mountain range, and how the native poplar forest was cleared to make room for the park, the timber being used to construct buildings and furniture that is still in use today.
Ghost Town itself is modelled on a typical 19th century mountain town, with a traditional wood-built streetscape. We found ourselves visiting the Red Dog Saloon, the home of Appalachian Country and Bluegrass music, and the Silver Dollar Saloon, where cancan dancers entertain visitors as part of regular old-time shows. With a church, a bank, these two drinking establishments and a jail for cooling off in, Ghost Town felt almost ready to move into.
We met Robert Bradley, aka The Apache Kid, who has been taking part in staged gunfights since the park first opened in 1961. He strapped an original Colt 45 to my waist and challenged me to draw. I was still wrapping my fingers around the butt as he pulled his own gun free of its holster, lightning quick, and had me covered, finger fully on the trigger.
‘You were lucky.’ I told him. He grinned darkly under the brim of his Stetson.
A loud voice thundered down the street. ‘I thought the sheriff told you to get out of town.’ It was the Apache Kid’s nemesis, fellow gunslinger and tour guide, come to restore law and order.
Gunfights (using only blank cartridges, thankfully) are a regular occurrence here. Bradley lost, (again, apparently) taking an acrobatic tumble onto the gravel street. He told me later that 50 years ago he was falling from Ghost Town’s rooftops several times a day. Recently the thuds had been getting a little heavier; now he preferred to keep his feet on the sidewalk.
We would have stayed longer, but Russ had plans for us. The chairlift back down the mountain was simply stunning and would have made a fine conclusion to our day. It was not to be. Back in the foyer I found myself being fitted with safety harness and hard hat, and propelled toward a series of three recently developed ziplines with a total length of 995 metres.
‘No way!’ I objected, prodding the finger-thick wire I was supposed to entrust with my life. ‘Only a lunatic would go down that!’ Two minutes later I was flying from treetop to treetop (see pic below). It was terrifying. It was over too quickly.
When it comes to tourism in North Carolina, Ghost Town was once Top of the Heap, and it most certainly has the potential to reclaim those glory days. New owner Alaska Presley is a woman with vision, aiming to continue the restoration of this iconic destination and with ambitious plans for future developments. There are many reasons why we would return to the Smoky Mountains. Ghost Town in the Sky is one of them.
• For more information on Ghost Town in the Sky, visit www.ghostowninthesky.com.
IN WIRE WE TRUST A reluctant John Shelley zips through the tree tops at Ghost Town in the Sky, North Carolina.