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Henry Johnson’s city continues to grow, thrive

Brad Jolly • Mar 25, 2012 at 8:54 AM

Editor's Note: Our annual Progress Edition, "Then & Now: Community Progress," appears inside the Sunday, March 25, edition of the Johnson City Press. Bound in a new magazine keepsake format, the 66-page volume includes numerous illustrated articles about Northeast Tennessee in both modern and historical perspectives..

The following is Assistant News Editor Brad Jolly's account of major milestones along Johnson City's journey.


By now it’s legendary, how Henry Johnson came in 1854 to the village that would become Johnson City and saw great potential.

At least he saw potential for a store, a depot and a post office on the proposed route of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad. Later, he would provide lodging for travellers, and though he wasn’t a drinking man himself, he made liquor available to those who wished it. It was a note of tolerance that would be sounded again in the city.

Soon there was industry, a tannery and a foundry or two, and for culture there was Jobe’s Opera House, a venue for local theatrics.

For a while it seemed iron would be Johnson City’s ticket to great prosperity. It would be “the future iron and steel manufacturing centre of the South” proclaimed an 1890 brochure. Blast furnaces and steel mills were proposed. The grand Carnegie Hotel was built.

Then in quick succession the proposed Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad, intended to service the metals industry, failed. The Carnegie Land Co. failed. The Carnegie Furnace Co. failed. More accessible iron was found in Minnesota and Alabama. And for good measure, the national economic “panic of 1893” occurred.

It was the city’s great setback, but soon there would be new strides.

Charming photographs show formally dressed boaters paddling Lake Wataussee emblematic of Johnson City’s new status as a summer resort. The Taylor brothers achieved fame and prominence. Splendid churches and sturdy schools sprang up.

Fast forward to the 20th century and some new characters take the stage.

Congressman Walter P. Brownlow was instrumental in obtaining the National Home for Volunteer Soldiers, completed in 1903. George L. Carter brought more railroad lines and provided land for the normal school which opened in 1911. The Bristol to Memphis state highway came our way.

Crowds gathered at Fountain Square for occasions as auspicious as the end of World War I. The John Sevier Hotel was completed in 1924. The airport serving the Tri-Cities opened in 1937.

Did it seem the pace was picking up?

Citizens lined the streets for the Burley Bowl parade in 1945-56. Kmart blazed the trail on North Roan Street as 1970 approached and was joined by the “Miracle Mall.”

ETSU’s medical school opened in 1978, partly due to the determined efforts of Congressman Jimmy Quillen. It was thought that the school would improve medical care in the area by graduating doctors that would stay here. Perhaps more significantly it attracted faculty who would also practice here.

Johnson City Medical Center Hospital opened in 1980, replacing Memorial. It would be the flagship of Mountain States Health Alliance, destined to vie with the forces of Wellmont.

Also in 1980, after several earlier tries, voters approved liquor by the drink. Red Lobster and Bennigan’s were among the first restaurants to offer drinks, and Johnson City became the dominant dining-out destination in the Tri-Cities, a distinction it has never relinquished.

On State of Franklin Road the “Med-Tech Corridor” bloomed slowly, but shops and restaurants quickly took hold, forming a new focal point for the city’s commerce.


As Henry Johnson did, Public Works Director Phil Pindzola ponders Johnson City’s future and sees a bright one.

That future, he says, will include “expansion of what we have, things we do well” such as ETSU and the medical school and our range of medical services. Development will continue on State of Franklin Road, especially from Sunset northward. There will be development downtown and on the corridor along Walnut Street, including multi-family dwellings.

“The ETSU art center will be an anchor,” Pindzola said, and there will be a museum. “Art usually ends up in the downtown area. That area has great potential.”

He noted that John Nolen, a respected city planner, looked at Johnson City in the 1920s and recommended creating green space and opening the creek. “Now we’re restoring the waterways,” Pindzola said. “Some of those concepts are what we’re doing now.”

The next big commercial jump will be in the direction of Boones Creek, he said. There will be higher-density residential construction, perhaps homes with individual energy production. Northeast State will thrive downtown and prepare young people for meaningful jobs.

“We’re losing the craftsman, the trades,” Pindzola said, and technical education will be increasingly relevant.

Johnson City will be a university town, he said, a town that will beckon people with its proximity to a mountain park and a lake.

“It will be a town that feels young,” he said. “It will be a real jewel.”

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