With such an original name, it’s no wonder that people often ask how the town of Pigeon Forge got its name. For some, the abundance of pigeons in the area at the time and a popular local iron forge will suffice. Still, for those wanting to know more about the history of Pigeon Forge, TN, we’ve dug a bit deeper, forged a few more irons, and tried to spot some pigeons.
It’s appropriate that one of the first businesses in this East Tennessee town was a furnace and iron forge, or bloomery forge, that once operated at the site of the Old Mill. Appropriate due to the burning quest of hardworking mountain settlers who forged a town out of the Smoky Mountain wilderness. Standing back and taking a good look at Pigeon Forge today, one notices the highly successful business community that sprung out of gravity of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Pigeon Forge was once an area of fertile hunting grounds tracked by the Cherokee and other eastern American Indian tribes. The Treaty of Dumplin Creek, signed in the late 1700s, opened the fertile valley for settlement.
In the 1700s and early 1800s the Little Pigeon River’s banks were lined with beech trees. Beechnuts were a mainstay in the diet of Passenger Pigeons, which made the river a natural stopping point for huge flocks of the now-extinct species. Naturally, the name “Pigeon” was used as common theme that settlers of the area could identify with.
Still, Pigeon Forge wasn’t the burgeoning metropolis you might think. At the turn of the 20th century, population records show Pigeon Forge with a mere 154 residents. The year 1934 would bring about change with the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which proved to be the natural Pied Piper for tourism for towns like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
After the founding of the national park, out-of-towners became a staple in the area if not solely for the park, but also for the numerous specialty stores popping up. Hotels replaced private homes where vacationers had previously stayed. Farming still remained the area’s primary business, but that also would soon take a backseat to the tourism trade.
The sale of the first parcel of property smaller than a farm was negotiated in 1946, paving the way for the lucrative property sell-off that would come to mark the region in the decades to come. It was during that time that Pigeon Forge’s thoroughfare, the Parkway, was beginning to become populated and featured two general stores and two churches.
Pigeon Forge finally became incorporated in 1961 as the visitors came in and concrete continued to be poured. With a firmly established city government and a new Department of Tourism established in the early 80s, Pigeon Forge was turning into a vacationers dream.
New businesses, primarily tourism-related, were being recruited to the area. With all the new jobs, the population started to spike as well. As of the mid-90s, statistics indicated that Pigeon Forge had 3,975 permanent residents within the city limits. The small, peaceful community where cornfields once stood had been transformed into a bustling, two-lane city whose main thoroughfare is now six lanes wide and known as the Parkway.
But don’t let anyone fool you, the Parkway’s overhaul was nothing compared to the impact one of the county’s own had on tourism. In 1986, Sevier-native and country superstar Dolly Parton, established Dollywood as a major theme park on the site of the former Silver Dollar City. Its only competition was three hours away in Nashville and was an immediate hit with visitors. To this day it has continued to expand with 2012 bringing the new high-flying Wild Eagle roller coaster.
As far as places to stay go, if you haven’t been down here in a while you might not recognize the place. The primitive rows of stone cabins along the riverbanks have been replaced by homes and businesses. Hotel and motel rooms numbered nearly 7,750 by the late 90s and cabins, condos and villas dot the mountains surrounding town. Numerous campgrounds can be found outside town and most are equipped with features such as laundry rooms, swimming pools, picnic tables and electrical hook-ups.
The mix of restaurants in Pigeon Forge has grown from locally-owned to fast food to fine dining written about in magazines like Southern Living and featured on the Food Network. Over a dozen theaters offer a variety of performances, all delivering family-style entertainment from the oh-so-popular Dixie Stampede dinner theater to the brand new Lumberjack Feud.
Complementing the entertainment of the theaters and the array of dining establishments are more than 50 family attractions, more than 200 stores in six outlet malls and an additional local 140 craft, gift and specialty stores.
While the town continues to address issues regarding traffic congestion, which should make it a lot easier to get to Sevierville, Gatlinburg, and around Pigeon Forge it’s clear there is one continual goal – building on the city’s rich history, literally, but it also looks toward a bright future at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains.