Alaska Presley has become synonymous with Ghost Town.
Although she didn’t come into full ownership of the park until 2012, she’s been there since the very beginning, and as time has gone on, it has become clearer and clearer it is the love of her life.
Now at 96 years old, it looks like Pressley may finally turn Ghost Town over to someone new, someone who can bring fresh ideas and fresh money to the property, whatever form that may come in.
Looking back on it, Presley said she and Ghost Town were the perfect fit for each other.
“I enjoyed it,” she said. “I was a loner. I’ve been a loner for a long, long time, since the 80s. I liked it. I had found it’s awfully hard to find help, whatever you pay them, to have a love for a place and a feeling for it, and that place needs it.”
Selling an idea
Presley was born in Clyde but came to Maggie Valley with her husband, Hubert, in 1955. While they had some success with a motel they opened up initially, things really took off when they met R.B. Coburn of Virginia, who already operated two other theme parks but had a big new idea.
“When R.B. came here, he had about $25,000 and a little one-engine plane,” Presley said.
It’s strange to think, but at the very beginning, Ghost Town almost wasn’t built in Maggie Valley or even on a mountain.
“R.B., at the time, had a down payment put on a piece of property over about halfway between Waynesville and Clyde, and he was going to put this over there,” Presley said. “We convinced him he’s off the beaten path and asked him why didn’t he come here.”
The “we” Presley refers to is herself and her late husband, Hubert. Sure enough, Coburn liked the idea and decided to build his amusement park atop Buck Mountain in Maggie Valley.
Although she didn’t take any money, Presley made up debenture bonds, which are debts issued without collateral, to folks willing to fork out a minimum investment of $10,000 at 10 percent interest.
“Most people would take two or three, and that’s how [Coburn] would put the money in the bank, and that’s how he built Ghost Town,” she said.
Investments were often secured at late-night meetings at the motel.
“I’d just take their information regarding what they wanted to invest in the mountain that day and then that night when they’d come in,” she said. “[Hubert] and R.B. would see the people and take the money. That kept me away from the liability.”
“We didn’t know R.B. that well at the time, so my attorney was afraid if something went wrong, I could get blamed for it,” she added.
When this all happened back in 1959, Presley recalled the town wasn’t much more than a narrow road snaking between the mountains.
“Maggie Valley didn’t amount to much then,” she said.
Coburn and the Presleys were able to secure enough investments to begin construction on a theme park, way up in the sky.
“Him and Hubert together could create a big utopia of excitement,” Presley said. “I just followed along and watched it.”
Building a ghost town
When work began on the project, it required daily trips up the mountain and long nights back at the motel. One of those nights, the legendary name was chosen for the park by the least expected person.
Among those in the room that night trying to determine a name for the park was Bob Terrell, then-sports editor of the Asheville Citizen Times, and with Terrell was his son, who everyone called “Little Bob” and had a propensity for interrupting the adults.
“Everybody was making suggestions for what to call the mountain, and little Bob was always in trouble and aggravating everybody, and he jumped up and down and Bob couldn’t control him,” Presley said. “He tried to hold him down. He said, ‘daddy, daddy listen to me,’ right in the middle of the conversation in front of everybody. Bob said, ‘son, what is it?’ He said, ‘it’s a ghosty ghosty.’ Everybody looked at everybody else, and we knew Ghost Town is what it was. That’s how it got its name.”
In 1961, once the 240-acre property was developed and ready to open, they had to figure out transportation — a process that turned out to be a disaster in the early going. Initially, they just ran two buses up and down the mountain to transport visitors to the park. Considering the the steep road and the waiting periods, people grew angry.
“The incline was too big so the buses wouldn’t always make it,” Presley said.
Not long after that, the park installed a ski style chairlift that went up and down the mountain over a 98-acre stretch of land. After that, the park blossomed into a tremendous success, and cars lined up bumper to bumper throughout Maggie Valley full of visitors ready to ride up to the Ghost Town in the Sky.
“It was just a mob of people,” Presley said. “It created a lot of attention.”
With that attention came enhanced business opportunities. They began opening the park up to vendors, and the investors got a cut of it all.
“People that would come in, and they paid for their own building and they built it, but then the people put the money up to pay for the building where they had the business up there and they paid for it then in rent and commission on their sales,” Presley said.
Over the years, Coburn sold the park, then bought it back, and it was profitable throughout. Ghost Town rode that high, momentous wave for decades, but like just about anything else, as it aged, it appeared maybe it’s time was limited. In the 2000s, equipment, including the chair lift and the rollercoaster, failed. Coburn again decided to sell the park.
“When R.B. sold it, we all were sorry he did, but he had made his millions and he was ready to go,” Presley recalled. “He went down to Ocala and opened up a park down there and it never went, so he lost money, but he had enough to handle it. He’s been dead now several years.”
A new chapter
In 2012, after the group owning Ghost Town declared bankruptcy, Presley bought it in an auction. She was down in Florida when she got the news that the property was hers.
“I had a phone call and it said, ‘Alaska you bought the mountain, Ghost Town.’ I said, ‘oh my God,’” she recalled. “We went on and spent the night and headed back up here the next morning. I paid for it and thought, ‘what am I going to do now?’ That’s about how it ended up.”
Finally, after five decades and at the price of $2.5 million, Presley was the sole owner.
“I loved it. I was happy,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d get it, but I felt like I was lucky.”
Presley initially opened and subsequently closed the A-frame at the bottom of Buck Mountain, but the park itself never returned to operation. Since then, as Presley’s health waned and she struggled to stay involved, there have been several attempts to reopen the park, and multiple potential buyers have come forward, but nothing has come to fruition.
After the most recent failed attempt to sell the property and reopen the theme park, several local, regional and even national publications have written about the park in less than flattering terms. In a July article, the Charlotte Observer twice noted that others have called the park “cursed.”
“How stupid can anybody get? That’s funny,” Presley said.
Although Presley doesn’t have Facebook or any other social media, she admitted that she has heard a lot of what people have said on various pages.
“People always call and say on Facebook people are always saying why doesn’t that old woman do something with it,” she said. “They don’t know how much I’d like to, but I won’t take a chance.”
Basically, Presley said she has had some interested parties who she deemed “unclean” and thought would ruin the park. Those she thought had the requisite integrity couldn’t make it happen.
And yet, even as bad as some of the press and public opinion of the property got earlier this year, a new buyer has emerged. While little is yet known about the potential buyer, those close to the situation have said he is a serious investor who has the means to make Ghost Town happen.
Presley said she believes someone with a sound vision and the means to execute on that vision will find the park to be profitable quickly.
“Ghost Town has success built in permanently,” she said. “It helped so many people in Haywood County and gave so many people work. It needs help, and it needs somebody that’s able to run it, and I’m willing to work with anybody that is fair and clean.”
Presley said that she just wants to see movement toward reopening the park, especially considering she doesn’t have anyone to will the land to.
“I don’t have any heirs,” she said. “I have one nephew.”
Before Presley stopped putting time and money into the park, her next big investment was going to be another form of transportation to allow visitors to reach the top in a quicker, more reliable fashion.
“I was going to put an alpine coaster up there, and it needs it, but I’m not able,” she said, adding that she is willing to help the newest potential buyer get one up there. “I’m just not able now.”
A labor of love
Presley said the toughest thing about running Ghost Town was simply the labor involved.
“I had to be there day and night, and I had more than I could handle,” she said, adding that she learned by watching others and through experience. “But it worked. I stayed as long as I could.”
Selling Ghost Town and removing herself from decisions made regarding the park has been tough for Presley, especially considering how many times she’s been down that road.
“Like I said, it grieves me to not be able to do something, do more than I can,” she said. “But you don’t tell that to the public. You just do what you can when you can, and that’s about how it figures.”
Although she said she felt ready to slow down and settle down for years, it has been a strange adjustment.
“I’m about to go crazy,” she said. “That’s about the truth of the matter. I’ve always worked hard and been busy, and now I’ve run out of things to do. I thought to myself, this has been a wasted day, and I’ve done nothing but watch TV. It’s driving me nuts. I don’t even like television. I don’t have that much activity going, but I don’t even really try. I guess I’m just too tired. I guess that’s what it is.”
But she still harbors strong opinions about her beloved mountain.
“There’s nothing to compare with Ghost Town, and there’s no competition,” she said. “There’s no way it won’t make it because it has no competition here business-wise. Everything’s been tried in Maggie Valley, and it didn’t work except Ghost Town. It’s a natural fit.”
In addition, she discussed how many people she believes the park has helped.
“To me, money don’t mean everything,” she said. “I’ve always worked hard and tried to be aggressive, but … to me principle means more. It’s been too good to my family. Not only that, it’s good for all the other people who were up there.”
However things end up for Presley and Ghost Town in the Sky, she said she will treasure the memories the park has given her, especially now that she is the last living member of that special group that founded the park.
“They’re all gone now but me,” she said. “I feel like I hold the purse strings of so much that’s gone to waste that has not been utilized because of me holding on to it. But I didn’t know any other way. I didn’t know how to do anything else. I love it. It will never leave me. I love it because I’ve seen so much good come from it. There’s so much to give, but there’s so much that’s wasted.”