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Rebirth of a depot: Johnson City's historic train station being converted into restaurant

Madison Mathews • Jul 30, 2013 at 10:16 AM

Although it hasn’t seen much activity over the last several decades, the historic Clinchfield and Ohio Railroad Depot used to a be a major source of growth for the city during the early 1900s.

The 104-year-old structure was constructed in 1909 by railroad tycoon and regional developer George L. Carter, who had a hand in the creation of many regional projects, including what would become East Tennessee State University, the Tree Streets neighborhood, the Model Mill and the city of Kingsport.

Renovation efforts are under way to transform the historic structure into the new home of Asheville, N.C.-based Tupelo Honey Cafe.

When Carter set out to bring the CC&O Railway to Johnson City, there were already two railroads that operated in town — Southern Railway, which would become Norfolk Southern, and the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, affectionately known as the Tweetsie.

Having three railroads operating out of one location was a major boost to the region, according to local historian Alan Bridwell.

“That was the location where they transferred downtown. I can’t say for sure on numbers how much freight or passengers came through there, but it really was a huge thing and increased the trade business in Johnson City tremendously,” he said.

From 1891 to 1912, the depot that sits across the CC&O Railroad Depot — which was the former home of Free Service Tire — housed both the Southern and ET&WNC railroads.

In 1912, Southern built its own depot near where the Downtown Centre is now.

By the time the CC&O depot was built, Bridwell said Johnson City had seen several growth spurts but it was the arrival of a third railroad that really sent the city into a time of great growth from about 1910 to 1920.

“The fact that you could in walking distance transfer to three pretty important railroads was a huge thing. That’s what made Johnson City the center of a lot of retail activity for a huge area — the presence of those three railroads,” he said.

During the passenger era, Bridwell said Johnson City went from being a small village with a rail station known as Johnson’s Depot to being the fifth-largest city in Tennessee by 1930.

While there were certainly other factors that spurred development, including the Soldier’s Home and the Normal School, the railroads paved the way for Johnson City to become a center of commerce for the region, according to Bridwell.

“The benefactors for the railroads were the benefactors for the city, but without the presence of the railroad junction there, it would’ve just been another little train stop,” he said.

Sometime in the early 1950s, the last passenger train passed through the CC&O depot. Bridwell said it was mainly used for freight after that point.

Since then, several small retailers and a restaurant have used the space, but it sat vacant for a number of years until Dorian Jones led restoration efforts in the early 2000s.

In 2008, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, developers Greg Cox and Joe Baker are working with Rainey Contracting and architect Uwe Rothe to renovate the structure as it transitions into Tupelo Honey’s new location.

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