Canyon Land: An abandoned amusement park at Little River in Alabama
Little River Canyon National Preserve is located atop Lookout Mountain near the town of Fort Payne, Alabama. The preserve was created by an Act of Congress in 1992 and it protects 15,288 acres along with what is also said to be the nation’s longest mountaintop river. The canyon was historically called “May’s Gulf” as the term gulf was a common term throughout the Cumberland Plateau for this type of feature.
Before this area was a National Preserve, it was home to what was once called “Canyon Land”. Millard Weaver, who was president of People’s Telephone Company, purchased a sixty acre tract overlooking Little River, which was adjacent to the state park. On March 8, 1970 he opened what was known as Canyon Land, which is now nothing more than a memory to those who grew up in the area. It had rides, putt putt golf, a campground, a zoo, live music & comedy shows and its most noteworthy attraction was a 1,500 foot long chairlift that guests could take 600 feet down into the canyon below. Once at the bottom of the canyon, guests of the park could have a picnic, go swimming, hiking or fishing. The floor of the canyon was owned by the State of Alabama and operation of the chairlift was contingent upon an easement granted to the park. The chairlift was located at what is now known as Eberhart Point and you can see remnants of the lift along with the pillars at the bottom of the trail in the canyon.
Upon opening, guests of the park could enjoy carnival type rides such as bumper cars, merry go round, tilt a whirl and a ferris wheel. There was also a miniature train that offered rides around the park. The depot from which the train departed was a 103 year old depot that Weaver rescued from Collinsville, Alabama. He converted it into a souvenir and gift shop.
Two years after opening the amusement park, the park grew to include a zoo with over one hundred animals and live shows including comedy acts and country music. In July 1972, a local band known as Wild Country made numerous appearances at the park. The band later became known as “Alabama”.
In October of 1973, Millard Weaver died and this was the beginning of the end for his park that he began with such high hopes. After ending up in a court battle, the park was eventually purchased by Edward R. Riley, however he soon ran into some unforeseen difficulties, most of which included the canyon’s chair lift ride. The chair lift was the main selling point and without it, the park was doomed. The bottom of the chairlift was on state property and permission to keep it there depended upon an easement that had been previously granted to Weaver. The easement expired with the sale of the property and the state was unwilling to renew it unless the “carnival atmosphere” amusements on the canyon rim were removed. The Governor of Alabama at the time, George Wallace even reportedly sent sworn statements to the courts that he wanted to see the chairlift in operation again but the court case dragged on for four years and there is not much evidence of when the park shut down for good, but it was sometime between the 1978 court proceedings and the early 1980’s.
In 1982, Millard Weaver’s son, Jackie managed to get the chairlift and some of the surviving rides back in operation but by 1985 the property was for sale again. For years, the amusement rides were left in place like a ghost town. They rusted away and were overtaken by weeds and foliage. Later, some of the chairlift swings turned up over the years for sale or on display in the area. Locals have also long believed that the zoo was disbanded by simply opening the cages and all the animals let loose to escape into the nearby woods. It has caused rumors for decades afterwards of people claiming to have seen jaguars and other exotic animals in the surrounding area.
Eventually, the part of Canyon Land along the rim where the chairlift was operated was absorbed into the State Park, which eventually became the National Preserve, while the rest of the property still operated as a campground for a while. The original entrance building and a few other structures are still visible on the site today and to date no plans have ever been announced to put the facility into any use.
Today, visitors to the area can still enjoy picnic tables and grills at the top of Eberhart Point. You can hike down the moderate tail into the canyon below and see the pillars where the chairlift once stopped. You can also see remnants of the old rock concession building. If you do make the hike down into the canyon, make sure you pack snacks and bring plenty of water to drink. Wear sturdy hiking shoes and note that cell phones have little or no service in the bottom. Camping is not permitted in the canyon due to dangers of flash flooding.
If anyone is interested, the old site is currently for sale. 55 acres and abandoned buildings for a whopping $1.2 million.