The tiny Haywood County town of Maggie Valley has long been a familiar tourist destination – especially when its well-known mountaintop amusement park was operating. Opened in 1962, Maggie Valley’s Ghost Town in the Sky was a wild west-themed amusement park high atop Buck Mountain in western Haywood County.
In its day, the park attracted crowds that powered an economic development engine that drove motels, restaurants and related attractions to a town that had a five-lane road, but just 200 residents.
“First off, it’s nostalgia. People just have great memories,” said Dave Angel, fifth generation Haywood County native, and owner of Elevated Mountain Distilling Company. He’s also Chairman of the Board of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.
His Ghost Town memories include the 1,400-foot high chairlift that brought visitors up to the old-timey main street, where can-can girls would dance in movie-set saloons and cowboys would reenact old west gunfights. “Burt Reynolds was a gunslinger at Ghost Town, and he left Ghost Town to make the movie Deliverance,” said Angel. “The bad guy in the movie Deliverance, the guy ‘You got a pretty mouth, boy,’ that’s ‘Cowboy’ Coward. He was a gunslinger on the mountain, left the mountain to go film the movie with Burt Reynolds. The Beverly Hillbillies, the guys from Ponderosa or Bonanza, they all used to spend time in the summer going to ghost town, signing autographs.”
Memories like that are what led Gastonia native Mike Withers to fall in love with the place back in the 1960s. When he passed away in 2015, he had one last request, according to his sister, Libby Withers Wilder. “He didn’t want a gravesite,” Wilder said. “He said ‘Go sprinkle me wherever you want to sprinkle me. If you can take me to the mountains and you can take me to Ghost Town, that would be fine.’”
She did just that, and since 2016, Mike’s been patiently waiting for the park to reopen, as have local officials like Maggie Valley Alderman Dr. Janet Banks. “I’m very encouraged,” said Banks. “I’m happy that people are interested in developing the property. I am on a board that wants to encourage new businesses coming to town, and I am very hopeful that whoever develops this property will be a success.”
New owners include Valerie and Spencer Oberle, who both spent their careers in high-level management with Disney. “I would hope that they would use their Disneyland, Disney World expertise to develop an amusement park that may have a historical theme to it, but has all the modern wizardry and gadgets that kids expect these days,” said Banks.
And they do have one thing going for them - brand loyalty for Ghost Town built over generations still exists, according to Lynn Collins of the Haywood Tourism Authority. “There’s not a day goes by that we don’t either get phone calls, or have people stopping in the visitor center asking about it,” Collins said. “I definitely think it has the potential to increase our overnight stays here in the county, not only through maybe people who haven’t been visiting in recent years coming back, but also increased stays when people get here and find out about it and decide to stay longer to take advantage of it.”
Although challenges remain, Dave Angel says he’s looking forward to what an already growing Maggie Valley would look like with a rejuvenated Ghost Town. “It’s got a rich tradition and history that goes with it, and I’m optimistic that the folks that are going to move it forward will honor that past and also find the path forward,” he said. “So I’m just really excited to see what they do with it.”
So is Libby Withers Wilder, who said that whenever the park that holds her brother’s ashes reopens, she’ll be first in line.