What’s next, Johnson City?

Johnson City Press • Dec 1, 2019 at 7:00 AM

The next time you visit downtown Johnson City, stroll down to 236 E. Main St. Take a good look. It’s a nondescript structure as old downtown buildings go — a typical two-story storefront with a bit of decorative brickwork.

What’s special about that address is that it represents a milestone in modernity. Beginning around 1909, Johnson City residents could enter that building and watch a modern marvel, the moving picture. It was this little railroad town’s first cinema, the Edisonia.

Imagine what that experience must have been like for people of that era — seeing life duplicated in motion on a screen for the first time.

In a century and a half, Johnson City has seen many such turning points in its evolution. This place has grown from a little village anchored by a wooden general store to a busy city powered by a 15,000-student university, a major medical sector and a diverse set of industries and businesses.

Founder Henry Johnson could not have foreseen what his little spot on the stage road would become, but he was a man of vision. He arrived here in 1853 and bought land where the new East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad would meet eventually meet the road. Three years later, the trains came to him.

Today is Johnson City’s 150th birthday — the town received its first charter on Dec. 1, 1869. As we have explored the city’s history over the last year to honor the sesquicentennial, it became clear how much our way of life has been transformed by people with Henry Johnson-like vision.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Congressman Walter P. Brownlow fought to build the old Soldiers Home, today’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in Johnson City. George L. Carter took the town’s rail business to new heights when he brought coal through the region on his Clinchfield Railroad. Carter also donated the land for the teacher-training institution that would grow into East Tennessee State University.

In the 1960s, Dr. Charles Ed Allen knew that Northeast Tennessee lacked the medical resources necessary for a healthy population. Backed by such leaders as Congressman James H. Quillen and Johnson City Press-Chronicle Publisher Carl A. Jones Jr., Allen successfully led the fight to establish ETSU’s Medical School in conjunction with the VA.

For two-thirds of Johnson City’s history, this newspaper and the older publications it absorbed have been here to record this town’s progress on a daily basis. We’d like to think the Press has helped that progress along the way, and we look forward to being involved in what comes next.

We have no crystal ball to know how Johnson City will look in another 150 years. Given how much has changed since 1869, surely the town would be as unrecognizable as today’s city would be to Henry Johnson. His mind undoubtedly would be blown, but we think he would be one proud man.

If history is any indication, the next person of incredible foresight may be on the horizon. As other Tennessee communities outpace this region in economic growth, we’re in need of that next big thing akin to the railroad, the VA, the university and the medical school.

Happy birthday, Johnson City. You have much to celebrate and much to build upon.

Johnson City will honor its 150 years of history from 2-4 p.m. today in a public celebration in King Commons Park, 112 N. Commerce St., home of the giant Johnson City sign.


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