In the northern part of Greenville County the Middle Saluda River flows across a long flat valley. Where Highways 276 and 11 come together, and where the Saluda crosses this road, one finds the community of Cleveland, South Carolina. The valley now hosts a post office, convenience store, and a couple of other businesses, but at one time an exciting amusement park occupied this same spot.
It was the late 1960’s and I was seven or eight years old. Dad and Mom loaded five of us (my two oldest siblings were in college) into the Chrysler and we headed toward the Great Smokey Mountains. It was a fantastic trip up through the mountains of North Carolina, with stops at Pisgah National Forest, Maggie Valley, and eventually Gatlinburg, Tennessee. That was the trip that we visited Echo Valley, a Western-styled theme park along the banks of the Saluda River in Cleveland, South Carolina.
During this time Western theme parks were all the rage in North Carolina. There was Ghost Town in the Sky in Maggie Valley, Frontierland in Cherokee, and Tweetsie Railroad in Boone. Most of these featured a Wild West town with regular shoot-outs and the endless conflicts between cowboys and Indians. There were also carnival rides and can-can dancers to round out the bill. Echo Valley followed this same pattern, and was developed to capture some of that Wild West market for Greenville audiences.
The late Melvin Jarrard was postmaster of the Cleveland post office and a local businessman. In his autobiography The Mountaineer of Cleveland, South Carolina, Jarrad describes how Harry Stuart brought the idea of Echo Valley to the area, and how that idea had originated with Ghost Town in the Sky.
One day in 1964 Harry came in and began talking to me about his proposal to build a recreation park at Cleveland. In the meantime, between the time I knew him and then, he had left Darlington and went up to Maggie Valley. It was his idea to build Ghost Town up on that mountain. A certain man from Orangeburg [Ronald Braxton “RB” Coburn] came up and spent about a week with him, according to what he told me. While he was sitting in the rocking chair on the porch one night, Harry told the man that there was a gold mine sitting there in that mountain. The man asked him what he was talking about and he explained his idea for Ghost Town. He said that people would come in from everywhere to visit a park like that.
This man liked the idea and stayed over until the next day. They walked up the mountain because there was no road there then, and he told Harry he would help finance it if Harry would build it. So that winter they started building about Harry put all the money he had into it, which wasn’t very much, but this man seemed to be very wealthy. While they were building it that winter it began to snow and sleet. Harry told me he began to be afraid of his own project then and said he hoped they didn’t lose all they owned. This man told Harry if he wanted out he would buy him out and that is what he did.
During his involvement with Ghost Town Stuart had purchased several miles of small-gauge rail from the Greenville and Northern Railway (AKA The Swamp Rabbit Railroad) to create the train tracks for Ghost Town. After his stint with that amusement park, Stuart approached a group of investors, including Jarrad, to see about replicating Ghost Town in the Cleveland area, incorporating the abandoned Swamp Rabbit rails into the park as one of the rides.
An old band mill site was purchased along the tracks that bordered the Saluda River. The tracks were rebuilt to create a nine mile circuit. Steam Engine 110 was purchased from the old G&N Railroad, and several cabooses were converted into open-air cars.
In addition to the train there was the western town complete with saloon, stores, and a few carnival rides. A chairlift took passengers up over Echo Lake and up to Echo Ridge for a view of the valley, then back down.
The major attraction in the town was the daily shoot-outs. Mr. and Mrs. David Bailey worked at the park, and this is how Mrs. Bailey remembered the daily routine when interviewed by some Northwest Middle School students:
The cowboys would wait for the train to get to a designated point at which they would rob it and steal the gold. They would then get on horses and ride away from the train into the town, where they would come in and be shooting. The sheriff would come out and have a shoot-out with one of them, and they would play dead. Then the undertaker would go out and drag him off, and then the mourners would come out and mourn. Some would be captured and be taken to a a mock hanging. They would shoot the rope, and they would all ride off.
When she wasn’t working in one of the park’s stores, Mrs. Bailey would play one of the mourners in the skits.
But back to our visit in the 1960’s …
Apparently my brother Stephen got into trouble for climbing up onto the hanging gallows for a photograph. He was scolded by some park official over the loudspeaker, which caused no small amount of embarrassment for both he and my father. I think that cut our visit to the park short, and may be why I don’t remember that much about the visit. My dad made some comment about having a shorter temper back then when I asked him about the incident.
Which brings us to the issue of bumper stickers…
It was the practice of these tourist places to put bumper stickers for the park on any vehicle parked on their lot, whether you wanted them or not. I had cousins that had visited Ghost Town, Ruby Falls, and other places, and had come back with these mementos of exotic places. I was jealous, and wanted proof that I, too, had visited such a place. When we got back to the car, sure enough, there was an Echo Valley bumper sticker. My dad immediately removed it, saying that he didn’t want it to damage the car. I think the gallows/loudspeaker incident also had something to do with his haste to remove it.
Eventually on that trip we did make it to Maggie Valley and Ghost Town. The only way to get to the park was via the inclined railway, which didn’t look safe enough for my mother, or the chair lift, which looked even more precarious. The ultimate undoing, though, was the cost. It would have cost $48 for admission for the seven of us, which was a princely sum back then. We would have to live with our memories of Echo Valley and its western town instead, and would have no bumper sticker as proof.
The park only lasted four seasons, from 1964 to 1968. According to Melvin Jarrard, it just couldn’t make any money.
…Every time we took in a little money we had to pay it on land bills and were never able to expand. We didn’t have Highway 11 at that time so we didn’t have the traffic that we have today to boost our business.
After four years we closed up because we just couldn’t make any money out of it. We would have probably gotten into financial trouble, but we had several people on the board who had money and extended loans to the park. We finally sold out, paid all the bills, and liquidated everything. We did lose some money on our stock, though.
If you visit Echo Valley today there’s not even a bumper sticker to give a hint as to what had been there. All of the old buildings are gone. The chapel was moved to Table Rock State Park, but eventually torn down due to termites…
…and Swamp Rabbit Engine 110 was sold to Stone Mountain Park in Atlanta. What you will find is a modern post office, convenience store, feed store, and music hall.
However, if you look closely, you might find something of the old park. In Google Earth one can see the old Echo Lake and can maybe make out the path of the railroad along the edge of the field…
… next to the Saluda River Bridge a pathway marks where the Swamp Rabbit continued up to River Falls…
However, the most poignant reminder is a concrete block that served as a base for the chair lift that once took visitors over the ridge for a view of Echo Valley. It sits alone, visible in the middle of what is left of Echo Lake.
Echoes – “Memories of Echo Valley”
Published by Northwest Middle School, Faith Printing
The Mountaineer of Cleveland, South Carolina
Autobiography of Melvin Lee Jarrard
Photographs of Poncho, the Gunslinger at Echo Valley from Pickens County Library
Special thanks to Rulinda Price of the South Carolina Room at Greenville County Library.
One final note – If you are doing an Internet search for information on Echo Valley, be forewarned if you use the search terms “Echo Valley” and “South Carolina.” Apparently there is a porn star with the stage name “Echo Valley” who was born in Columbia, South Carolina. Rule 34 strikes again.
UPDATE: Here are links to the infamous photographs taken by my father on our trip. The first link has photographs of me and my older brother, and the second link has general photos.