I finally mustered up enough courage to ride Mystery Mine at Dollywood.
For years, I walked by and watched mine carts dash out of the imposing “coal mine” and make some bold moves before returning out of sight. It made me nervous. (I admit I like my coasters on the tamer side!) But, now that I’ve been on it, Mystery Mine has surprised me and become one of my favorite attractions.
Earlier this season, an unexpected snow blanketed the region. It was mostly melted by the next day except for white clinging onto the trees in the shaded divots of the Smoky Mountain foothills. Just as the snow had surprisingly come and gone, for some reason my reluctancy had melted away, too, and the desire to ride Mystery Mine suddenly came upon me.
Despite the previous trepidation, the attraction had always intrigued me. Mystery Mine is a prominent feature in the park, towering over Timber Canyon, and the inside was always unknown and mysterious to me. I always enjoy walking by the animatronic vulture outside the ride queue: it tells stories and warns of the dangers inside the mine. It must be quite an attraction to have such a feature next to its entrance, I thought. No other Dollywood ride has this.
Watch this Dollywood video for the Mystery Mine rider’s point of view (POV).
As I waited in the queue line that day, I absorbed as much of the atmosphere as I could. I noticed old signs and fictitious newspaper articles posted along the walls recounting tragedies in the mine long ago and the condemnation of the now abandoned mine. An announcement about keeping your boots on and not losing them made me laugh, because my friends and I had all just bought cowboy boots the evening before in Pigeon Forge and talked about wearing them to the park. (We decided they were not quite practical for the occasion.)
Nervously, I boarded the mine cart. One of the first things that stuck out to me was a canary in a small cage near the ride operator. It had fallen from its perch. I remember going on a tour of an abandoned coal mine in Alberta, Canada, and learning about how miners would keep canaries in cages throughout the mine. If a canary stopped singing and dropped from its perch, it was a sign that miners needed to evacuate as the air was becoming noxious from mine gas. This is smart theming, I thought. Someone knew this small detail to include it in the mine. As the ride progressed, there were a few other themed moments that stuck out to me, including vignettes with vultures, a lightning storm and dynamite.
I was intrigued by these clues. There obviously was a story going on, and I wanted to know the full story. Between the animatronic vulture (Buzz), the signs and newspaper articles posted outside and the elements within, there is some real thought going into the backstory, but I couldn’t quite piece it all together. I decided it was time to investigate.
The Story of Old Grandpa Jack
I started my quest by studying point-of-view videos of the ride online, then watching all the videos I could of Buzz. I gathered a few things including the story of Old Grandpa Jack told by the vulture. He was a trapper who lived in a cave in the Smoky Mountains. As folklore goes, you’re not supposed to whistle in a cave, because its vibrations can cause rocks to shift. However, Grandpa Jack whistled in his cave causing the earth to tremble and the ground to open up, revealing an abandoned mine. Then, Grandpa Jack wandered in the cave, never to return. Because of this legend, Dollywood’s Mystery Mine also informally became known as the “Whistle Mine.” Despite its colloquial name, guests of the attraction know it’s formally the unlucky Mine 13. Just as your ride in the Mystery Mine begins, you hear something. Could it be the ghost of Grandpa Jack?
Wrong Way Joe
Another character related to the mine, or at least to the themed area of the attraction, is Wrong Way Joe. The vulture outside the ride recounts his story: “Back in the logging days, it was Joey’s job to determine the natural lean of a tree, so they would know exactly where it would fall. Well, Joe had a knack for doing things the wrong way. So, if Joe called the tree in one direction, ya’ll could stand in that same spot and live to tell about it. Some say a huge tree nearly fell on the potato shack, but Joe, with the help of his head, broke the fall. Ever since then, Joe has been 20 mules short of a mule team. If Joe ever spoke his mind he’d be speechless. Truth be told, Joe has been doing things the wrong way ever since he has been knee-high to a bark beetle.”
What does 20 mules short of a mule team mean? In the mining days of old, what was referred to as a 20-mule team was actually composed of 18 mules and two horses. If Wrong Way Joe was 20 mules short of 18 mules, he was certainly in bad shape, and bad luck must permeate from this mine.
In my quest for more information about Mystery Mine and to see how all these pieces tie together, I chatted with Pete Owens, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations at Dollywood. Pete was at the park for Mystery Mine’s opening and knows the history—from the storyboarding to the marketing of this big investment. He explained that Dollywood “does not do scary,” but that it does entertain mystery and superstition; Mystery Mine is themed after traditional mine superstitions. According to mining lore, there are three great superstitions related to mines:
- Never take your boots off in a mine. It’s bad luck, for there’s only one way a man comes out of a mine without boots. Pete went on to explain that at one part in the ride, if you look carefully, you’ll see boots hanging in the mine. Also, this makes sense in the queue line when we are warned to keep our boots on.
- Don’t whistle in a mine. This can bring about danger. We hear the warning not to whistle in the mystery mine in the theme song that plays in the line queue: “Don’t whistle in the Mystery Mine or danger you will meet.” This brings us back to the story of Old Grandpa Jack. As a park guest, be warned; whistling also is heard accompanying the music of the ride.
- Birds in a mine are bad luck. This explains all the vultures and ravens in and surrounding the mine. The one exception is you want canaries with you in the cave. If they drop dead or pass out, you better get out fast. Guests are warned: “If the canary ain’t tweetin’, you’ll be sleepin’.”
Pete went on to explain that each lift and drop in the ride is related to one of these bad omens. At the beginning of the ride, you see the red beady eyes of vultures and ravens; at the second lift you see the canary dropping dead in its cage; the third lift is where you find the boots hanging. All of these bad omens foreshadow the danger which is to come— the storm, where lightning strikes the mine, the mine shaft tower collapses, and the dynamite ignites. You are then blasted out of the cave in your mining cart.
I was fascinated by this theming. Rooted in historic mine superstitions, it’s clever and fits perfectly with Dollywood’s larger Appalachian theme.
Other Fun Mystery Mine Facts
In my talking with Pete and during my own investigation, I learned quite a few other interesting facts about the Mystery Mine:
- At the time of its opening, it was the first coaster with a complete vertical lift and beyond vertical 95 degree drop.
- The Mystery Mine theme song was written by a composer who has written songs for other well-known theme parks and entertainment companies.
- At its time of construction, Mystery Mine was Dollywood’s single biggest investment in the park at $17.5 million.
- Mystery Mine is award winning. It gained the title of Best New Theme Park Attraction in 2007 by Theme Park Insider and has second the same year from Amusement Today.
- Dollywood re-tracked Mystery Mine in 2021.
- During its first year of operation, the vulture out front was voiced live and could interact in real-time with guests. Grandpa Jack was there, too. Since then, Grandpa Jack’s character has been removed, and Buzz the vulture is now a recording.
- The Mystery Mine is manufactured by Gerstlauer, a German rollercoaster company, known for rides in many well-known parks.