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The Dollywood Express is one of the most iconic rides at the Dollywood theme park. Guests board a genuine coal-fired steam engine for a five mile adventure through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. With old time conductors and the piercing whistle of the steam engine, riding this train is like taking a journey back in time.
While many people assume that the Dollywood trains were custom built for the theme park, the locomotives were actually constructed in the late 1930s and early 1940s! During WWII, these steam engines played an important role in America’s war effort. Visit My Smokies did a little research to bring you the secret history of the Dollywood trains in World War II.
Journeys Through the Frozen North
Before they retired to beautiful East Tennessee, Dollywood’s steam engines operated in a much chillier climate. The Dollywood trains originally traveled along the “White Pass and Yukon Route,” a railroad that linked the port of Skagway, Alaska with the city of Whitehorse, the capital of the Canadian territory of Yukon.
This railroad was constructed in the late 1800s during the Klondike Gold Rush. The gold rush brought thousands of prospectors to Yukon in search of riches, and the White Pass and Yukon Route provided transportation to the goldfields.
After the end of the gold rush, the White Pass and Yukon Route was used by professional miners to move silver, copper, and lead. When the Great Depression struck, however, the White Pass and Yukon Route was hit hard. Traffic dried up and trains ran infrequently, sometimes only once a week.
World War II Begins
Just when it looked like the White Pass and Yukon Route had become obsolete, World War II broke out and changed the railroad’s fate. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, America became concerned that Alaska could be Tokyo’s next target. Alaska was the closest part of the United States to Japan, which made it vulnerable to invasion.
In light of this threat, the U.S. and Canadian governments decided to build the Alaska Highway, a route that connected the contiguous United States to Alaska by way of Canada. The city of Whitehorse suddenly became an important construction site for the highway, and the White Pass and Yukon Route found a new calling.
Dollywood Trains to the Rescue
Despite its poor condition, the White Pass and Yukon Route was charged with the task of transporting construction supplies to Whitehorse. In the first 9 months of 1942, the railroad moved more freight than it had in the past two years combined!
In October of 1942, the railroad was taken over by the U.S. Army to speed up the delivery of supplies. Under military control, the White Pass and Yukon Route gained an additional 26 engines and 258 cars. Among these engines were the future Dollywood trains, which were officially known at the time as “United States Army Transportation Corps S118 Class steam locomotives”.
During the next year, the trains on the White Pass and Yukon Route moved a staggering amount of freight. In 1943, the railroad carried 281,962 tons, which is equal to ten years worth of the route’s prewar traffic! This feat is even more impressive considering the horrendous winter weather in Alaska and Yukon, which included snowdrifts, strong winds, and temperatures of – 30 °F. Ultimately, the trains on the White Pass and Yukon Route successfully completed their mission, and the Alaska Highway was finished.
The Rest is History
16 years after the end of World War II, one of the trains from the White Pass and Yukon Route played a starring role in a brand new attraction in Pigeon Forge, TN called “Rebel Railroad”. Opened in 1961, Rebel Railroad’s signature train ride featured attacks from train robbers and fights between Union and Confederate army reenactors.
As the theme park changed hands over the years, more White Pass and Yukon Route trains were added to the fleet. Today, Dollywood has four original White Pass steam engines. So, the next time you ride the Dollywood trains, take a second to appreciate the fact that you’re experiencing a part of history!
For the best deal on Dollywood tickets (and free cancellation), click on the green box below:
To learn more about the theme park’s history, read our blog about Dollywood’s 30th Birthday!