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1903 Johnson City was dramatically different from 1888 Johnson's Depot

Bob Cox • Nov 4, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Johnson City, only eight miles from Jonesboro in the same county, once furnished as a striking contrast to the old town.

Where on one side was historical associations, old and quaint buildings, in the other was bustle, activity and city buildings that made one to stand aside and look sharp.

There is practically no recorded history about early Johnson City. Up to about 1888, it was Johnson's Depot. Its water tank was about it. That would change.

Then, the town saw the incursion of "boomers," persons who settle in areas or towns that are growing rapidly. They witnessed the laying out of metropolitan boulevards and the erection of skyscrapers on paper, and some elegant buildings. In fact, the boom came and the people rushed in, got bitten and got away, if indeed they could.

The "suckers" soon sank out of sight and sure enough, businessmen took their places. The population now exceeded that of boom days. In 1903, the town contained about 6,000 inhabitants and was in a prosperous condition.

Progress became evident with the installation of an electric railway system, paved streets and sidewalks, a fine lighting system, waterworks and other things that denote municipal ambitions and activities.

The streets were crowded, plus there were good hotel accommodations and no hard-luck stories could be heard anywhere. One resident made the insightful observation that "Johnson City is all right." That pretty well said it all.

What likely did more to build Johnson City than anything else was the construction of the Soldiers' Home. Those who had not been to Johnson City in recent times had no conception of the magnitude of the work required there. Over a million dollars had already been spent and there was needed appropriation for as much more.

To the rescue came Congressman Walter Brownlow, through which the Home was finally obtained for Johnson City. He hoped to secure the expenditure of an even larger sum by the government after the present available funds were exhausted.

The Home was designed to accommodate about 1,700 soldiers, and when it was full, it require about $100,000 annually to operate it. It was for many years a source of steady income to the people of the community.

In addition, the great cluster of buildings that constituted the Home served to comprise a most beautiful spectacle. When the buildings were completed, there was no more inspiring sight from an architectural standpoint in the country. It was something to behold and to be proud of, and it was.

The buildings were in several clusters on an eminence about a mile from the center of Johnson City. They were of Spanish renaissance style of architecture, of red and white brick, and were the most beautiful in their architecture.

The completion of these structures and parking on the grounds make the spot an ideal one and, no doubt, this of itself attracted thousands of visitors to Johnson City.

Congressman Brownlow had looked after several of his friends and opponents in the Home. Judge Smith, the former chancellor of this district, was the governor. WEP Milburn, who opposed Mr. Brownlow for Congress in one primary, was the Quartermaster General. Major Paul E. Divine was treasurer.

In this connection, speaking of Major Milburn's appointment taken in connection with that of Judge H.T. Campbell to be one of the assistant attorney generals, it was commonly said of Brownlow that the way to get an office in the First District was to oppose him.

Mr. E. Munsey Slack, formerly publisher of the Abingdon Virginian, and his brother used to write widely quoted paragraphs for the Bristol Courier, which who was publishing the Staff newspaper.

It was a twice-a-week issue and contained a great deal of news. With Cy Lyle of the Comet, Johnson City was well represented as a newspaper town.

Johnson City acquired several industries, which collectively paid their employees salaries of $20,000 monthly. If that wasn't enough, the city was about to vote on the question of issuing $28,000 monthly in improvement bonds. Johnson City was unquestionably and undeniable on the move.

Reach Bob Cox at [email protected] or go to www.bcyesteryear.com.

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