Alcatraz East Crime Museum, Pigeon Forge's newest
attraction, features exhibits on crime, prevention,
punishment and law enforcement.
grand opening, in this town on the edge of Great Smoky
Mountains National Park and 5 scenic miles from
Gatlinburg, had been in the works for months.
had the drought.
marginally successful, for-profit attraction called the
National Museum of Crime & Punishment had lost its
home in Washington, D.C., the previous year over money
issues. (The landlord wanted more of it.)
meant John Wayne Gacy’s clown suit and John Dillinger’s
death mask and James Caan’s pistol from "The
Godfather" might have gone back into assorted
collections and attics. But no.
the museum was to move to Tennessee and reopen as the
Alcatraz East Crime Museum. It was to sit comfortably on
Pigeon Forge’s six-lane, slow-moving Parkway in a
neighborhood that already included the Hatfield &
McCoy Dinner Show, the Hollywood Wax Museum, Smoky
Mountain Opry, Wonder Works, Dolly Parton’s Lumberjack
Adventure and, of course, Dollywood. And pancake joints
and go-kart tracks and hotels and motels and outlet malls
and T-shirt emporia.
just really felt a visitor to the Pigeon Forge area was
our visitor type," said Janine Vaccarello, chief
operating officer. "They love our country, they love
military, they love law enforcement, love guns — they
embrace exactly what we are."
Nov. 23, as workers were tweaking and installing and
polishing for the planned Dec. 16 opening, came the first
report of a wildfire near Chimney Tops Trail, a scenic
hiker route in the national park about 7 miles south of
later, with the fire still feeding, came high-wind
warnings. Then, reports of more fire in the mountains, and
the fires were spreading. Evacuation notices, first for
Gatlinburg and then for Pigeon Forge as well, went out
contain it,’" Vaccarello recalled saying to
herself. "’ Do not enter this Parkway area.’
There were already fires in that area. You could smell
them. But they were in very rural areas."
fire didn’t enter the Pigeon Forge Parkway area.
didn’t have any loss of life here," said Leon
Downey, executive director of the Pigeon Forge Department
of Tourism. "All of our businesses continued to
lost 14 lives. More than 2,400 structures were destroyed
or damaged, including the home of the town’s mayor.
city’s oldest hotel is the Gatlinburg Inn. It was built
on the city’s Parkway (narrower and even slower than
Pigeon Forge’s) in 1937. Its guests have included
Liberace and Lady Bird Johnson. The song "Rocky
Top" was written in one of its rooms. Its general
manager is Gary Bailey.
mountain behind the hotel," he said, "was
completely on fire."
more than a week, this city of 3,900 — which annually
funnels 10 million visitors to the nation’s most-visited
national park — was on lockdown.
had to show ID to get in," Bailey said, "and you
had to be out by a certain time. And that was due to
safety concerns, plus I’m assuming there were concerns
about people getting in and looting some of the businesses
that were closed.
didn’t have any of that."
they had was, mostly, a sense of relief.
we came into town for the first time, we realized, ‘Hey,
it was bad, but on the whole, Gatlinburg is still intact.’"
some motels were remnants. Many places to stay and shops
— downtown Gatlinburg, more sedate than Pigeon Forge, is
primarily shops and little restaurants — suffered smoke
back roads, charred houses and cabins were in evidence.
Skeletal bicycles and melted stoves and gutted automobiles
were grim reminders. Blackened trees and brush told their
was kind of everybody’s first rodeo," Bailey said.
"It was traumatic to see. And, of course, some people
lost their lives — people that we know."
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Wolfe takes reservations at Twin Cedar Cabins in
Gatlinburg. The company owns nine rental cabins. Two were
lost in the fire. She knows others were less fortunate.
a disaster that we’re dealing with," she said.
"People call and say, ‘Why would we want to come
there? Everything is gone.’
it’s not gone. Gatlinburg is open, ready for business.
We were all affected, we all lost things, we’re all
recovering — but if these people don’t come back, then
we’re really going to be devastated."
Christmas, most Gatlinburg hotels that stood near-empty
during the cleanup were busy again. Almost all shops and
eateries and attractions had reopened, and those still
closed were expected to be ready soon. Parkway was back to
its usual crawl; sidewalks were seasonally busy.
Gatlinburg was open for business, and people were coming
of families have traveled here and have memories of their
vacations here, of throwing rocks in the river and
whitewater rafting … and having pancakes" said
Marci Claude, of the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors
Bureau. "And they grieve with you.
then they support you."
there’s also this.
can look at the bad side, if they want," said Steve
Ellis, who handles sales and marketing for Parton
properties in Pigeon Forge. "But all the stuff’s
going to be rebuilt. Carpenters, electricians, you go to
get lumber — it’s jobs."
Dec. 16, authorities declared the fires in Great Smoky
Mountains National Park nearly 100 percent contained and
stopped issuing bulletins.
in Pigeon Forge, all was absolutely normal. Dollywood, the
amusement park, reopened the first weekend in December.
Other attractions were doing fine despite the inevitable
talked to a lady the other day," said Ellis,
"and she thought the mountains physically burned. The
mountains themselves. She said, ‘Is it flat up there
people came here before, there’s no difference."
days before Christmas, thanks to good work by
first-responders and a blessed event — rain — the
national park lifted its ban on campfires.
Dec. 16, right on time, the Alcatraz East Crime Museum —
like everything in Pigeon Forge and almost everything in
Gatlinburg — was open for business.
is gone, gone, but tomorrow is forever."
Solomon is a freelance writer.