I have an overactive imagination that occasionally leads me to question whether or not things I think I’ve seen are real. The first time I experienced that phenomenon was when I was a kid and happened past a disembodied steeple rising from a cornfield. The second time was years later: I thought I found water gushing from a boulder in a rural display of some biblical miracle. The third time was about a decade ago. I was driving down I-75 towards Knoxville when I stopped to get gas. I swear that I saw the unmistakable outline of a Ferris wheel gazing down at me from the mountainside! Ten years later, it turns out that I had.
I spent the week after Christmas on vacation in Edisto Island with my parents and my six-year-old niece. It was my first time back to the island in nearly a decade. I took some pictures of what I found interesting on the trip and I’ll write about them periodically. This is part two of the loose series; read part one here.
I’ve harbored a strange interest in amusement parks and the attractions that populate them since I was a kid. In my early twenties, I even bid on a used Eli Bridge “Little Scrambler” ride that would have been the perfect fit for my parents’ deck! Naturally, an abandoned Ferris wheel stuck to the side of the Cumberland Mountains is more interesting than one in a theme park. Its story is nearly as winding as parts of I-75 itself, and it starts just off Exit 141 where the Ferris wheel stands near two others in an unincorporated part of Tennesssee called Royal Blue.
The area got its name from the Royal Blue Coal Company, which operated a mine before it consolidated with four other entities to form the Blue Diamond Coal Company in 19261. In 1944, Blue Diamond formally established the community as a company town and initially paved its streets with coal! Over time, Royal Blue became home to some three-hundred miners and their families until the company shut down in 19522.
After Blue Diamond left Royal Blu, a Pentecostal minister and businessman named Junior Thacker operated the Jack Ridge Coal Company on 3,000 acres nearby3. In the mid-1970s, Thacker turned his attention towards developing the area as a tourist destination. First, he opened a five-story hotel with a swimming pool and restaurant he named the Thacker Christmas Inn in 19744. He started a small theme park known as “Thacker World at Coal Town, USA” five years later5. Junior Thacker led the development of much of the surrounding area as well6.
Thacker World at Coal Town, USA featured diverse attractions like a merry-go-round, a replica of a 19th-century Davenport steam train7, go-karts, gondolas, bumper cars, gift shops8, and, yes, a Ferris wheel9. Despite it all, Coal Town was short-lived. In 1982, its contents -things like a 1925 Model T “paddy wagon,” a 1962 Mercury Comet convertible, and assorted other concession and amusement items- were sold at auction10.
I know enough about carnival rides to identify the Ferris wheel on the mountain as an Eli Bridge HY-5 model. The double-star lighting pattern gives it away! HY-5 wheels are trailer-mounted wheels that are fifty feet tall and twenty-seven feet in diameter. They feature twelve gondolas that each fit three passengers, and the design of the wheel’s ten-horsepower cable drive motor dates back to 1912! Eli Bridge no longer manufactures cable-driven Ferris wheels due to the difficulty and level of expertise necessary to operate them.
Some locals claim that Coal Town stood on the hillside where I found the Ferris wheel, and they say that old roller coaster footers wrap around it11. I’ve thus far been unable to uncover any indication that Coal Town ever featured a roller coaster or even sat on the hillside.
Coal Town actually sat on Luther Seiber Lane about 2.5 miles south of the Ferris wheel12. The site’s still visible today and consists of a manmade lake, a parking lot, concrete paths, and five pads where rides probably once stood. There’s even an old tunnel where the miniature train once ran below the parking lot! Some people believe that the Ferris wheel on the mountain served as an advertisement for Coal Town. It’s certainly possible since the park itself was obscured from the interstate.
Others say that the Ferris wheel was moved to the mountainside to serve as an advertisement for a fireworks store that was established on the west side of the interstate after the park closed13. Eventually, the store’s owners acquired two more Ferris wheels and moved them to the store itself. Although the grounds look like the remains of an old amusement park or carnival, it seems as though none of the Ferris wheels were operable. They only served as advertisements for the fireworks store, along with a missile, castle facade, and other larger-than-life objects14.
The store’s owners added most of its decorations in the early 1990s15 before the Stowers family -which operated fireworks stores in the area since at least 195116– bought the place in 2008. I first passed by the complex during the winter of 2013, and seven months later, a fire erupted in the back room of the Stowers Superstore over that Fourth of July weekend. Sixty-five firefighters from three counties spent the afternoon battling the blaze17 as rockets and mortars shot out of the building onto the interstate, igniting other, smaller fires18. I-75 was shut down for hours until the last few hotspots were extinguished19.
No one perished in the fire, but the building was gutted. As officials worked to determine the cause of the blaze, they quickly learned that the business lacked a valid permit to sell fireworks- it expired just after I first passed the place! Eventually, electrical issues in the building’s attic were pinpointed as the cause of the inferno20, but all the fireworks in the back probably didn’t help matters.
The family sold the property in 2015. In a stroke of marketing genius, a barbecue trailer called Smokin’ Butts now sits at the site under a carport in front of one of its Ferris wheels along with a seasonal fireworks tent. Since the fire, the place has become a haven for urban explorers and those interested in abandoned areas. Unfortunately, the area was roped off when I stopped by on January 2nd. I have a strict no-trespassing policy during my field trips, but as I left, the thought occurred to me that the entire exit would have been the perfect subject matter for my drone, which sat at home 316 miles away.
Despite its unique decorations, the Stowers Superstore was by no means the only garishly-adorned fireworks emporium along this stretch of I-75: In 1988, the owner of Thunder Mountain Fireworks in nearby Caryville commissioned a forty-foot-tall fiberglass dragon21 to advertise his business. Just like the Ferris wheels, the dragon has long outlasted its original marketing purpose. Thunder Mountain burned down three years before the Stowers Superstore did22.
Although a campaign to restore the Thunder Mountain dragon was mounted early last year23, the same can’t be said for Royal Blue’s Ferris wheels. Today, all three landmarks remain standing as abandoned monuments to…something. Coal? Junior Thacker? Pulled pork? The dangers of recreational combustibles?
Frankly, as a carpetbagger, I’m not sure where the Ferris wheels line up in the zeitgeist of northern Tennessee. At the end of the day, I’m not sure I need to- all three of Royal Blue’s oddball Ferris wheels were immensely compelling without any context! I was enthralled and had to learn more. Wouldn’t you be, too?
1 New Coal Company Is Just Organized (1926, October 27). The Kingsport Times. p. 5.
2 Second Mine Shut By Blue Diamond (1952, October 5). The Knoxville Journal. p. 6.
3 Yarbrough, W. (1969, January 12). Families Ask Why in Mass Shootings. The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 1.
4 Announcing The Opening Of Thacker Christmas Inn (1974, May 17). The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 6.|
5 Thacker World At Coal Town USA (1979, April 8). The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 62.
6 Thacker, Junior (2007, November 24). The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 25.
7 Hendrix, R. (1979, May 29). Past recreated at city company. The Johnson City Press. p. 4.
8 Auction (1981, September 4). The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 33.
9 Whilhoit, J. (2019, March 24). On Davis Time. Comment. Web. Retrieved January 7, 2022.
10 $50,000 Inventory of 5 Stores – Fixtures -Fun Equipment of Thacker’s World (Coal Town USA) (1981, August 30). The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 55.
11 Orval (2018, February 19). On Davis Time. Comment. Web. Retrieved January 7, 2022.
12 Coal town (2008, March 31). East Tennessee Region SCCA. Web. Retrieved January 3, 2023.
13 (See footnote 9).
14 Brandon S. (2020, June 21). On Davis Time. Comment. Web. Retrieved January 3, 2022.
15 Ken (August 29, 2020). On Davis Time. Comment. Web. Retrieved January 7, 2022.
16 Announcements (1951, December 18). The Knoxville Journal. p. 14.
17 Watch: Fireworks explode as Tenn. store catches fire (2014, July 7). USA Today. Web. Retrieved January 2, 2023.
18 Christie, J. (2014, July 7). ‘We couldn’t risk anybody going inside’: Tennessee fireworks factory explodes in fire that takes more than 65 men to contain. The Daily Mail [London]. Web. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
19 Lakin, M. (2014, July 7). East Tennessee fireworks store blaze still a mystery. The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Web. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
20 (See footnote 19).
21 Spivak, L. (2022, January 21). Friends plan to breathe new fire into green dragon along I-75 in Caryville. WATE. Web. Retrieved January 7, 2023.
22 Jacobs, D. (2011, June 1). Fire snuffs out fireworks business. The Knoxville News-Sentinel. p. 3.
6 thoughts on “The abandoned Ferris wheels of Royal Blue, Tennessee”
Ted—the Ferris Wheel story does not link to the rest of the story???
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Sorry about that! this one needed a little more time in the oven.
Ted—as a follow up to your Ferris Wheel story; I just finished reading the book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson.
True story about the building of the 1895 Chicago Worlds Fair with a back story of a murder mystery too.
In addition one of the new attractions at this Worlds Fair was the very first big round-rotating wheel built by George Ferris!!
Also gives details of the large size and what happened to it after the Fair closed.
Very interesting book—you will like it and appreciate the author’s research.
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I’ll check it out! Thank you!
COAL Town turned out to open at the worst time since maybe WWII, with maybe the deepest postwar recession that ran from late 1979 into early 1983.
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I know it’s a regional thing, but I can’t imagine many kids were excited to go to Coal Town based on its name alone. I can actually see trips there being deployed as a threat. “Kids, unless you start behaving, we’re taking you to Coal Town instead of Santa Claus Land this Christmas!”
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