The early years
It began humbly in 1853, when founder and first mayor Henry Johnson bought a half-acre of land where the stagecoach road (Market Street) would cross the path of the proposed East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad Company’s line from Chattanooga to Bristol. Seeing opportunity in the location, Johnson built a general store and planted the seed that eventually grew into Johnson City.
Johnson expanded his store, added an inn and a train depot, then he convinced the authorities to relocate the Blue Plum post office two miles away to his depot. New residents began moving in to take advantage of the open land now served by transportation and communication lines.
In 1869, Johnson City was officially chartered, bearing its founder’s name.
Much of Johnson City’s early development — and some of its hard times — was owed to railroads.
The East Tennessee and Virginia line, later the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia, then the Southern Railroad and finally Norfolk Southern, was four years from completion when Henry Johnson selected his spot.
Dr. Samuel Blair Cunningham was a Jonesborough doctor who served as the railroad’s first president. He was instrumental in charting the line’s course from Bristol to Knoxville and worked overtime to raise the funds for its construction.
Newspaper accounts of the time said he dug the first shovel of dirt when work started on the East Tennessee and Virginia and he drove the last spike to complete it.
After the East Tennessee and Virginia came the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina.
The ET&WNC, more commonly known as the Tweetsie, was chartered by the state in 1866 to connect iron ore mines in Cranberry, North Carolina, to the new rail line at Johnson’s Depot.
Even with its narrow gauge, the original investors found the cost of construction through the Blue Ridge Mountains to be too much and abandoned the plan.
In 1873, Ario Pardee Jr., former Union Army major and son of a Pennsylvania coal baron, purchased the existing iron works and formed the Cranberry Iron & Coal Co. He also bought the abandoned Tweetsie line and pushed it through the mountains with help from engineer, future Johnson City mayor and Johnson City Foundry founder Thomas Matson. The Tweetsie completed its first journey in 1882.
Once the cars began shipping ore and timber down from the mountains, Johnson City’s population exploded, from 685 people in 1880 to 4,161 in 1890. It was our first railroad boom.
The new supply line attracted the attention of another northern capitalist — John T. Wilder.
A successful general in the Civil War, Wilder was drawn to Johnson City after establishing the first blast furnaces in the South, at Rockwood, Tennessee, and forming a company that produced steel rails for railroads.
Wilder saw great promise in Johnson City as an iron and steel manufacturing center with its ease of access to ore, coal and limestone, the raw materials needed to make the metals.
In 1886, Wilder and his financial backers formed the Charleston, Cincinnati, and Chicago Railroad Co., planning to connect the Ironton, Ohio, and Charleston, South Carolina, lines through Johnson City.
Wilder’s company began building the rail line in sections and established Johnson City as its headquarters, with a freight station just the the east of the city.
He named his accompanying real estate investment company the Carnegie Land & Improvement Co., either to honor or flatter financing from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. With that company, Wilder developed land along his tracks adjacent to Johnson City, which he likewise called the Carnegie Addition.
Lots within Carnegie were free for those building manufacturing or industrial plants and churches, schools and other public buildings. Residential lots in the 1,000-acre development sold for the highest prices in Johnson City.
In 1890, Wilder hired a contractor to build a blast furnace, the second furnace in the South using the Bessemer process to remove impurities from iron during steel-making.
But the financial Panic of 1893 hit Wilder’s companies especially hard. During the depression, his financing dried up, he went bankrupt and construction stopped on the railroad and the furnace.
The furnace changed hands a couple of times and was renamed the Cranberry Furnace. Railroad magnate George L. Carter, who later founded the nearby city of Kingsport, bought the Three Cs Railroad in 1902.
Though the real estate company went belly up, some of the developers who purchased lots in the Carnegie Addition built neighborhoods.
Harry Gump, namesake of the Gump Addition, built upper-middle class housing surrounding the Johnson City Country Club on the north side. On the eastern end, black workers at the Cranberry Furnace purchased empty lots. By the 1940s, the area was a strong black community, with a segregated public school and several black churches.
Once in control of the railroad, Carter renamed it the South and Western and began rapidly building lines.
In 1908, the company became the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway, stretching from Dante, Virginia, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, with offices in Johnson City.
Like Wilder, Carter left an indelible mark on the city’s residential districts.
In 1909, he platted the Southwest Addition, laying roads and sidewalks in what would later be known as the Tree Streets. At the northern edge, he built the Model Mill, for processing flour. To the west, he donated land for the East Tennessee Normal School, which later became East Tennessee State University, an educational center and major employer in the city.
With the three rail lines intersecting in Johnson City’s downtown at the early part of the century, the city became a hub for transportation and commerce. A combined 20 passenger trains passed through daily and brought new industry and business.
As passenger rail ridership declined, giving way to automobile traffic, so did Johnson City’s rail fortunes.
Trains from Norfolk Southern and CSX, the CC&O’s successor, still roll through town, but their depots were closed decades ago. Through consolidation, CSX closed its railyard in Erwin and laid off 300 workers, reducing the company’s traffic on the southbound line.
Floods in 1940 washed out some of the Tweetsie’s mountain lines, and they weren’t rebuilt. Traffic on the narrow-gauge track stopped in 1950, but the standard-gauge line served industrial customers in Johnson City and Elizabethton until the 2000s. It was eventually shuttered as well.
A recent refocus on Johnson City’s downtown rekindled interest in its commercial past and brought new developments for the railroad remnants.
With flooding problems addressed by the city and beautification efforts underway, restaurants moved into the still-standing Tweetsie and CC&O depots. The city removed the steel tracks of the Tweetsie railroad and built a pedestrian trail between Johnson City and Elizabethton. Runners now puff along the path of the steam and diesel trains that came before them.
Even the Model Mill, still standing after 110 years, is being renovated, and will soon house commercial and retail space.
White line fever
As trains became less important in commerce and transportation, automobiles and long-haul trucks rose.
It took 18 years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act for its effects to be realized locally. The Tennessee section of Interstate 81, connecting Interstate 40 near Knoxville to upstate New York, was finished in 1974.
Near the same time, U.S. Route 23, which ran north and south through Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, was built to interstate specifications between Johnson City and Kingsport as part of an Appalachian Regional Coalition project.
In late 1985, city leaders successfully lobbied the federal government to redesignate the 25 miles as an interstate. Thus, I-181 was born.
Not long after the designation, boosters in Tennessee began lobbying to extend the interstate from Johnson City to the North Carolina line in hopes it would be connected to Interstate 26 in Asheville.
In 1986, Tennessee approved a construction project to widen U.S. 23 from Erwin to Sam’s Gap in its 13-year road building plan. The work was finished in 1992, but the road wouldn’t receive the I-26 designation until 2003, when North Carolina finished its final portion.
Near the time leaders were battling for interstate designations, they also conceived of a ring road around the city where I-181 entered it on each side. The four-lane road would give another, faster avenue for traffic going from one side of the city to the other.
Over the next 10 years, Route 381, later named State of Franklin Road, was plotted and built from downtown Johnson City to the north side.
Developers snapped up farmland along the route for new businesses, and some of the area was designated as a medical corridor to encourage professional offices and facilities.
Today, State of Franklin is one of the city’s busiest roads, and business activity continues to thrive along it.
Revenue by the drink
In 1980, a city gamble paid off big time as the state began to loosen its blue laws governing alcohol sales.
Johnson City became the first of the Tri-Cities to approve liquor-by-the-drink sales in a public referendum. Teetotalers fought the prospect fiercely, but the vote opened the city up for new investment from restaurants and bars.
As new alcohol-serving businesses moved in, Johnson City became known as the only place in the region to have a few legal drinks, and revenue skyrocketed. Other retail and restaurant businesses, seeing the growth in Johnson City, decided to open up shops.
Four years later, Bristol and Kingsport likewise approved referendums, but the initial four-year jump put Johnson City ahead in retail sales — and tax collections — for decades.