Prominent people in Johnson City history

Zach Vance • Jan 14, 2019 at 8:48 AM

The contributions of hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens, city leaders and entrepreneurs gradually shaped and molded Johnson City into what it is today, but few have matched the influence of Henry Johnson, George L. Carter and Walter Brownlow. 

History has recognized these three pioneers for creating institutions that ultimately established Johnson City into the metropolitan epicenter of Tri-Cities. 

While these men came from different backgrounds and time periods, all three understood the potential of this city and exhibited enough audacity to make their visions a reality. 

Henry Johnson

The namesake of Johnson City, Henry Johnson traveled west from North Carolina through the Allegheny ranges and set up his camp near the site where railroad tracks were being built by the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad Company. 

Author L. Thomas Roberts wrote in his book, “Johnson City,” that Johnson clearly “understood the potential for the property but his future investment here presented a great risk as well.”

The first record of Johnson being in the region was his marriage to Mary Ann Hoss in Washington County in 1834. In 1846, he purchased 100 acres of land on Sinking Creek and began operating a mill, and between 1849 and 1855, he was known as the postmaster of Blue Plum.

Around 1854, Johnson bought a half acre of land from Abraham Jobe on Brush Creek, which is present day Market Street, and eventually built a combination home, store and waiting room that served passersby and settlers of the newly-founded community. 

According to a May 1922 article published in The Sunday Chronicle, Johnson reportedly welcomed all travelers into his trading post at all time and those “persons without the means to pay for lodging were welcome just the same.”

Johnson continued expanding his operation and eventually built the first railroad depot that eventually became known as Johnson’s Depot. 

“The energy, the forethought, with which he concentrated upon projects of building, of advancement and commercial and industrial expansion, show that he was constantly planning for better things, and was constantly bending his efforts to bring them to pass,” The Sunday Chronicle article stated.

In addition to “founder,” Johnson won Johnson City’s first-ever mayoral election in January 1870 by receiving 60 registered votes.

George L. Carter 

Carter was a savvy businessman from Hillsville, Virginia, who not only played an instrumental role in the creation of East Tennessee State University, but he is also known for founding Kingsport. 

Carter began his career working in the iron ore industry and eventually established his own coal and coke company in Bristol. As Carter’s wealth expanded, so did his business dealings. 

“Carter’s businesses included twelve banks, flour mills, iron mills, coal mines, foundries, railroads, the Bristol Herald-Courier newspaper, an ocean shipping company, and the necessary dock and pier operations for movement of coal and lumber,” author James Reel wrote about Carter in an ETSU Today magazine article.

Carter also invested heavily in land. At one point, Carter owned 350,000 acres in Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, 8,000 acres in Kingsport, a quarter of what is present day Bristol and several hundred acres in Johnson City.

That land in Johnson City covered the present day Tree Streets and what is now ETSU, but the university would not be here today without Carter. 

In 1909, the state of Tennessee sent a search committee to Johnson City to find a location for a normal school, and community leaders planned to advocate for the school to be built near Carnegie. 

“George L. asked the committee not to make a decision until they saw the location he proposed on the south side of Johnson City. Overnight, he employed the railroad and contractor to cut a road and gravel and level select pieces of the property,” Reel wrote in his article. 

“The next morning Carter met the committee with three cars for the viewing. His offer was made without cost to the state. Carter added some cash, organized the support of the city and county for sidewalks, electricity, and trolley transportation. Carter’s Johnson City site was selected.”

Walter Brownlow

During the Civil War, a 13-year-old Brownlow attempted to join the Union Army but was rejected because of his age. By his mid-20s, Browlow was hired to be a reporter at the Knoxville Whig and Chronicle and that same year, he purchased the Herald and Tribune in present day Jonesborough. 

Brownlow covered politicians as a reporter and eventually desired to become one himself, first as a Republican delegate in 1880, then postmaster and eventually doorkeeper for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1881. 

In 1896, Brownlow was elected to represent Tennessee’s 1st Congressional District. Brownlow served just four years, but during that span, his accomplishments included establishing the National Cemetery in Greeneville, the fish hatchery in Erwin, federal buildings in Bristol, Johnson City and Greenville. 

But perhaps Brownlow’s most significant contribution was his effort to land the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, now known as the Mountain Home VA, in Johnson City. 

At the time, the federal government had already declared it would no longer provide funding for such endeavors, but Brownlow persisted. 

Brownlow argued that East Tennessee furnished the Union 30,000 volunteers, more than any other southern state, with 18,250 Union pensioners living in the 1st District at that time.

The Board of Governors finally wrote an official recommendation to Congress, and Brownlow secured 7,000 petition signatures from the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans organization. By 1901, Brownlow’s bill passed Congress unanimously and the Mountain Home VA was built for approximately $2.1 million. 

“In 1901, Johnson City was a village of 5,000 inhabitants. The total assessed value of all property in the village was $750,000. Mr. Brownlow’s project was being estimated to cost over $2.1 million dollars. In the three years it took to build the facility, Johnson City’s property value and population doubled,” Mountain Home VA historian Daniel Kyte wrote about the solider home’s history. 









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