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A region born from industry

Jennifer Sprouse • Mar 27, 2012 at 11:32 AM

Looking at Johnson City today, there are few traces of the industry that, for a little while, made the city an industrial hub.

Alan Bridwell, executive director of the Northeast Tennessee Valley Regional Industrial Development Association, said in the 1880s there was a big iron ore strike above Roan Mountain which made Johnson City somewhat of a boom town.

“For a brief period of time this was a real hot spot for it, so that’s what brought in a lot of capital,” Bridwell said. “A lot of people moved here.”

With expansions and additions to the railroads, Bridwell said Johnson City, rumored to become the Pittsburgh of the South, was the ideal junction stop because of all the land that could potentially hold the iron and steel being produced.

Bridwell said foundries for iron ore and steel works were set up near where East Tennessee State University eventually settled.

“There was a Carnegie iron works out in East Johnson City, where A.O. Smith (American Water Heater company) is today,” Bridwell said.

Outside capitalist investors, like Gen. John T. Wilder, also made their mark on Johnson City’s industrial development, he said.

Wilder, a Union Civil War general and industrialist from Indiana, traveled to Chattanooga and saw the possibilities of building a railroad through East Tennessee’s mountains, Bridwell said.

When the iron ore was discovered in Roan Mountain, Bridwell said Wilder moved his business to Johnson city.

“He was well known throughout the country and pretty much a promoter also of Johnson City for a period of time,” he said.

Bridwell said Wilder started work on the Three C’s Railroad, which would have run from Chicago, Cincinnati and Charleston, but it was never finished because of the Financial Panic of 1893 that sent the world through hard economic times.

“It wiped out railroads, investment, everything,” he said. “The money was coming from British investors for his railroad and it was a worldwide financial panic.”

Because production had been forced to stop, a lot of people left Johnson City to find work elsewhere, Bridwell said. He said iron ore smelting continued until the 1970s, but mining was no longer done in this area because other mining locations up north could extract iron ore more efficiently.

George Carter, another industrialist and founding father of ETSU, came along a few years after the Panic and started buying up coal and mineral rights in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, Bridwell said.

“He was very much a coal magnate,” he said. “He came to Bristol and was involved in trying to organize a new railroad company. Then he moved to Johnson City and officially named it (the railroad) the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio.”

According to Bridwell, Carter replaced the Three C’s railroad that Wilder had originally planned with the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio.

Carter also bought a large amount of real estate in south Johnson City, he said.

Bridwell said Carter’s land attracted many things to the area. He said the land for East Tennessee Normal School, now ETSU, was donated by Carter.

Carter also built the Model Mill, a flour mill which later turned into General Mills. Bridwell said Carter was responsible for developing the downtown area, as well as the Tree Streets neighborhood.

Carter’s main focus was engineering and planning a coal-carrying railroad that would be able to take the coal from the mountains through town, Bridwell said.

He said originally the Southern railroad line came through the area, but not every town the train went through prospered like Johnson City.

Bridwell said a reason the town was popular was in part that Carter was able to bring in big-time railroad investors to the area. “He got New York investors,” Bridwell said. “He got some of the richest people in the U.S.”

Bridwell said over the years Johnson City became less focused on manufacturing goods.

“We weren’t as dependent, in the last 20 years, on manufacturing as we were in the early years of the 20th century,” he said.

He said there are still hardwood flooring industries that survived over the years, including Harris Wood Floors/ QEP Co. Inc and Mullican Flooring.

Harris Manufacturing Co., as it was first named, has been around since 1898.

Bridwell said it was because of companies like Harris that Johnson City once became the third largest hardwood manufacturing center in the world. He said manufacturing hardwood is a cyclical business dependent on the housing market.

Another industry thriving in the area is the automotive industry that, Bridwell said, is making a comeback with two Japanese companies, Koyo and Nakatetsu that have settled in the Washington County Industrial Park.

He said some industrial plants that left the area due to the recession were Douglas Dynamics LLC, TRACO, Robert Bosch Braking Systems and Superior Industries International Inc.

An industry that Bridwell said he could see coming to the area would be medical manufacturing. “One area we would like to see is medical devices with all of the health care emphasis in the area,” he said.

While Bridwell said he doesn’t foresee heavy industry, like iron ore production and mining, ever coming back to Johnson City, he does hope to recruit new industries in the future.

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