History repeats itself with good timing

Johnson City Press • Jan 25, 2019 at 7:00 AM

Railroads built Johnson City. The town rose from the confluence of three rail lines moving iron and coal through this part of the country.

So it’s especially fitting that the state would devote $2 million toward improving rail tracks in east Johnson City to serve industry in 2019, which marks the city’s 150th birthday.

As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported in Wednesday’s edition, the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Competitive Rail Connectivity Grant will be used to create a rail spur along North Broadway Street for East Tennessee Railway to serve existing industries in the county that now lack connectivity. A spur is a secondary railroad track used to load and unload rail cars without interfering with other railroad operations.

East Tennessee Railway, a 5-mile short line railroad that interchanges with CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern, transports various commodities, including chemicals, food and feed products, forest products, steel and scrap. Northeast Tennessee Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller told Vance the spur along the North Broadway Street area will give the railroad more ability to bring in raw materials to serve existing industries along that line.

More importantly, it could encourage manufacturers to make capital investments and ultimately create more jobs in Johnson City. State Rep. Matthew Hill told Vance he became aware about the need for a spur after meeting with A.O. Smith’s American Water Heater officials, who reported they would be able to update processes at a minimum and possibly expand.

The water heater plant is not alone. East Johnson City has been a considerable industrial base served by rail dating back to when Gen. John T. Wilder established the short-lived boomtown of Carnegie (the site of the original Carnegie Hotel is now part of American Water Heater’s grounds) with a Bessemer furnace to smelt iron from the North Carolina mountains in the 1880s. Wilder’s dream ultimately failed, but new operators and rail service from the ET&WNC and Clinchfield lines kept the fires burning at the Cranberry furnace from 1902-1929.

Miller noted that East Tennessee Railway line reaches all the way to Johnson City Chemical Co. and can serve some manufacturers in the nearby Johnson City Industrial park at Eddie Williams Road.

The TDOT grant will require a $200,000 match, which NeTREP hopes to secure from the Johnson City and Washington County commissions. Both commissions should approve the funds.

Those investments could pay off with more jobs and a larger tax base. If Johnson City’s railroad history is any indication, they will.

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