On April 28, 1972, a small amusement park called Hillbilly World, USA opened in a slender mountain gorge of the Cherokee National Forest. Two Tennessee politicians, First District Rep. James H. Quillen and State Senator Marshall T. Nave, presided over the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Hillbilly World boasted state fair-quality carnival rides, tent games, a shooting gallery, and a petting zoo. Its most alluring attraction, however, was a scenic ride on the Hillbilly Express 101, a kiddie train that recycled the old narrow gauge rails of the defunct ET&WNC “Tweetsie” railroad.
It might seem outlandish now that a US Representative and a state senator were on hand to christen a third-rate amusement park that would go out of business within the decade, but Doe River Gorge has attracted a long succession of curious commercial ventures. Being in a unique position to provide both nature-based and man-made entertainment for visitors, Doe River Gorge and its successive business models emphasize the influence of American philosophical values on consumer preference.
Doe River Gorge is located seven miles south of the town of Elizabethton in east Tennessee. In the mid-nineteenth century, a narrow gauge railroad was carved out of the gorge to haul iron ore from the booming Cranberry Mine in Boone, North Carolina. The Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina railroad, nicknamed “Tweetsie” for the way the train whistles echoed through the mountains, was as much a commercial line as it was a passenger one. In 1941, after the coal business had dried up, one writer raved at how “the Doe river gorge through which Tweetsie twists and turns is still in its primeval state.” Tourists sometimes hopped out of the train to gather wildflowers on the gorge’s rock ledges.
The ET&WNC ceased its passenger service in 1950, but the gorge was not empty for long. In 1968, the Doe River Development Corporation opened a family recreational complex at the site. Doe River Gorge Playland, reincarnated as Hillbilly World four years later, entertained guests with scenic excursions and carnival rides. Though the Playland/Hillbilly World business model had generated excitement in the local newspapers, by the late 1970s the park was abandoned.
Today, the phrase “Doe River Gorge” is less of a place name and more of a trademark. A Christian ministry bought the land at a quarter of its sale price in 1987 and quickly expanded the grounds into an outdoor youth adventure camp. In 2004, it launched “the largest expansion in its brief history – a long term facility that will complement the Gorge property and maximize the facility to reach thousands of young people with the message of Christ.”
“Come away to a place where you will be captivated by the handiwork of God’s spectacular creation,” urges the Doe River Gorge website, which is already advertising its 2015 programs. Why has the Doe River Gorge Christian camp prospered where its predecessors – including the railroad that put the site on the map – have floundered? The answer can be found in the way the Doe River Gorge camp offers the fulfillment of a flawed but persuasive “back-to-wilderness” philosophy independent of economic or religious trends.
Environmental historian William Cronon critiques the historically accepted notion of wilderness as an untamed paradise unsullied by human civilization. In idealizing nature as our “true” home, says Cronon, we pretend that civilization “is not an essential part of who we are.” These attitudes have been present throughout American history. One of the chief characteristics of the ubiquitous frontier myth perpetuated by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 was the idea that wilderness was “the last bastion of rugged individualism.”
As Cronon points out, “If one saw the wild lands of the frontier as freer, truer, and more natural than other, more modern places, then one was also inclined to see the cities and factories of urban-industrial civilization as confining, false, and artificial.” Doe River Gorge as a red-blooded venue for father-son retreats, teepee camping, and physical exercise seemingly transcended the shadow of the failed coal industry, the tired stereotype of Appalachian hillbilly, and the gimmickry of tourist trap amusement rides.
The train tracks at Doe River Gorge have now been partially restored for short camp train rides, symbolizing a revival of the romantic Tweetsie excursions into a “primeval state.” Industry in its classic form may never exist here again, but a unique type of human engineering still rests behind a natural façade. The human desire to glimpse an idyllic wilderness is as strong today as it was when the frontier myth was first devised. Doe River Gorge, as a site of commercial success and failure, offers a unique lens through which to view this persistent American philosophy.