Then and Now: ETSU has “changed significantly”

When East Tennessee State Normal School was founded in 1911 under former President Sidney Gilbreath to educate the region’s teachers, it might’ve been difficult to imagine what the institution would become more than a century later in 2019. 

Only 29 students registered on the first day of the school’s first semester. Today, East Tennessee State University has an enrollment of over 14,500 students and offers a wide variety of programs in 11 colleges and schools.

Senior Vice President for Academics and Interim Provost Wilsie Bishop said Gilbreath would be proud of the university’s progress over the decades, in terms of both capital projects and academic program growth.

“I think he was a man with vision, and I think he knew creating an institution of higher education here in Johnson City and serving Northeast Tennessee was going to make a difference in the lives of people. That was part of what he established as our original mission,” said Bishop, who’s held a variety of administrative positions at the university since arriving at the campus in 1978. 

In the institution’s early days, Bishop said the university was viewed primarily as “a university that was convenient for people in the area to come to.”

“I think we’ve grown in our ability to attract faculty from across the country – some of the faculty that came to us this year came from some of the best institutions in the country,” Bishop said. “I think they’re drawn to ETSU because they see that we are a growing institution. The growth has allowed us to have more specialized programs and have a wide array that you’d expect to find at a university. I think we draw students now because of the reputation of our programs.” 

In 1925, the school became a college, changed its name to East Tennessee State Teachers College and gained accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. In 1943, the college became East Tennessee State College before finally settling on East Tennessee State University in 1963.

Since the 1970s, ETSU’s enrollment has doubled, and the university’s distinguished health science programs have emerged into what they are today. By 1978, the university’s Quillen College of Medicine admitted its first students after being established by the legislature in 1974. 

“In 1978, the College of Health was split into the College of Public and Allied Health and the College of Nursing. They were called ‘schools’ at the time,” Bishop said. “So the activity of putting the five colleges together that we now have that serves as the Academic Health Science Center, or ETSU Health, really started in ’78.”

Before Stanton Gerber Hall was built, some College of Medicine labs were inside the university’s Mini-Dome under the bleachers. From the mid-70s to 2000, Bishop said the “dome was doing more than athletic events.”

“They were doing research under the bleachers,” Bishop pointed out.

In 2005, the university established the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy after locals rallied to found the new school. In 2007, the College of Public and Allied Health, which Bishop was previously dean of, was split into the College of Public Health and College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences.

“I think (Gilbreath) probably would be surprised to see what a strong academic health center the university has become,” Bishop said. 

Bishop said the physical makeup of the university’s main campus has changed dramatically over the decades, particularly under President Brian Noland’s tenure. 

Since Noland took leadership in 2012, the construction of the $26 million William B. Greene Jr. football stadium was conceptualized and eventually completed in 2017 after the football program was reintroduced. Now the $45.5 million renovations to the D.P. Culp University Center and the long-anticipated $53 million James C. and Mary B. Martin Center for the Arts are set to be completed in 2020. 

Earlier this year, the newly acquired $20 million Millennium Center was transformed into a new academic building for ETSU’s highly ranked computer science program, complete with new, state-of-the-art classrooms. ETSU also recently requested $71.8 million from Gov. Bill Lee’s budget for a new humanities building. 

“I’ve been here on my 42nd year, so I’ve seen the campus change a whole lot during the time I’ve been here. When I first arrived, State of Franklin (Road) wasn’t finished in front of the university,” Bishop said. “The visible image that the university provided to the community has changed significantly.” 

Then and Now: Science Hill’s field of dreams built on success

If James Earl Jones did a voice over about the history of athletics at Science Hill, he might want to reach into his Field of Dreams vault and change a few words.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been success. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But success has marked the time. This city, this school, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

Overall, Science Hill has won 23 state team championships since earning its first back in 1935. The Hilltoppers also have their share of state runner-up finishes.

Titles Sport
4 Baseball
4 Boys golf
4 Tennis
3 Boys basketball
2 Girls cross country
1 Boys cross country
1 Boys  track and field
1 Girls track and field
1 Girls golf
1 Girls tennis
1 Girls wrestling

One of the first times Science Hill put its name on the statewide map came in 1947 in baseball. The Hilltoppers scored a run in the bottom of the sixth inning and defeated Franklin by a score of 1-0 in the semifinals. History came knocking on Friday, June 13, at Sulphur Dell in Nashville. Science Hill defeated Memphis Christian Brothers by a score of 3-0 as Ralph Carrier tossed a three-hit shutout.

It was the first of four state baseball championships for the Hilltoppers, who also won in 1962, 1963 and 1998.

Science Hill’s first-ever team state championship came in 1935 in boys’ track and field. Sprinter and hurdler Charlie Fleming was the standout, winning three individual titles. On the girls side, the Lady Hilltoppers won the state team title in 2009.

Science Hill captured its only boys’ team cross country state championship in 1963. The girls got into the mix in 1994. They ruled the state again in 2008.

Boys’ basketball earned its way onto the gold ball map with its first championship in 1990. The Hilltoppers conquered the state again in 1994 and 1995. The magical run from 1990-95 was part of the heyday for head coach George Pitts, whose teams were constantly knocking at the door of state success and found themselves ranked nationally as well.

The girls are still seeking their first-ever basketball state title, but finished runner-up in 2012 and 2013. This year’s team has the look of one that could compete for the state’s biggest prize.

Boys’ golf made a splash with its first state team championship in 1959. It took 42 years to get there again as the Hilltoppers won in 2001 and 2003. The 2018 squad pushed the total to four gold balls. The girls golf team captured its lone team title in 2013.

In tennis, the boys’ program has enjoyed the top spot four times. The Hilltoppers won in 2002 before earning a threepeat under Pete Zannis in 2007-09. On the girls side, Science Hill won a state title in 2009.

The soccer program has enjoyed some terrific seasons, but both the boys and girls are still seeking their first titles. The boys have finished as state runner-up four times. Volleyball is also seeking its first state title.

In wrestling the boys are looking for their first state title, but the Hilltoppers were state runner-up in dual wrestling in 2018. The girls won a team title in 2015.

Then and now: Johnson City managers reflect on decades of changes

City Manager Pete Peterson has worked for Johnson City for about 29 years — more than one-sixth of the city’s 150 year lifespan.

Peterson started in Jan. 2, 1991, beginning as a development coordinator before ultimately rising to the position of city manager, a role he serves in now.

Charlie Stahl has worked for the city on a few different occasions — the first in January 1983 as a city management intern, working principally for the assistant city manager on the budget process. Now, Stahl is one of the city’s two assistant city managers. He’s totaled almost 20 years at the organization.

During their tenures, Peterson and Stahl have witnessed significant shifts in the way the city operates. They’ve also had front row seats to ebbs and flows in the City Commission, which, like any elected body, has gone through periods of combativeness.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Peterson said he heard more comments from citizens about the contentiousness of City Commission meetings than comments about the actual content of the meetings themselves.

Peterson remembers participating in a radio interview at around that time in which the interviewer compared the fights in the commission chambers to a wrestling match.

“He goes, ‘You guys have destroyed my Thursday night. WWF is on the same night as the city commission meeting, and I can’t decide which one’s the better fight,’” he said.

Peterson said the natural human factor involved in group dynamics plays a part in that, and in the past, some conflicts have centered around specific issues. For example, in the 1990s, Johnson City was in the process of siting the Iris Glen landfill down the street from City Hall.

“You had one for sure and probably two city commissioners that were elected basically as single-shot candidates because they were opposed to the landfill,” he said. “So you immediately had conflict built into that group dynamic.”

Stahl remembers that the city’s decision in 1984 to purchase property that would eventually serve as Winged Deer Park also attracted its fair share of criticism. The issue was previously considered by the City Commission in the 1970s but was shot down in a split vote.

“I was actually in the audience when it was purchased,” Stahl recalls. “People actually spoke against buying it and the big argument I remember about buying it was, ‘Why are you buying property outside the city limits? How are people going to get to this so-called park?’”

Now, the city limits surround and extend beyond Winged Deer Park.

“That’s where I think the City Commission exercised a lot of vision in the growth of the city,” Stahl said.

At the time, the city’s boundaries were limited to just Washington County. Now, they extend into three counties, including Carter and Sullivan.

Currently, Peterson said there aren’t as many issues that rise to a level of public concern similar to that of the landfill.

“I think the commission and staff have done a really good job of trying to get the community’s input on what direction that the community is headed, and tried to get feedback through our citizen survey,” he said.

The city has performed three or four of those surveys now, and whenever the city gets that feedback, Peterson said it makes adjustments in its budget and work plans to reflect the desires of residents.

Advancements in technology have also led to significant changes in how the city conducts regular business. Survey crews, for example, used to be composed of three or four people. Now, the city can send one person out with the proper equipment to do the work of a four-person team.

It’s also made it easier for the city to keep track of its sewer lines.

“In the early 90s, we probably had no clue where all of our water and sewer lines were,” Peterson said, “or where the valves to turn them on and off were other than what was in the heads of the people that got out and worked that system every day.”

Now, Peterson can pull up a map in his conference room that shows the full extent of the city’s water and sewer line system.

The city is also subject to much more state and federal oversight, he said. The majority of of laws and regulations the city enforces, Peterson said, are handed down by a higher level of government. Those regulations have made it more expensive for the city to operate.

“There’s just more and more of it,” he said. “The level of regulation now in comparison to what it was 30 years ago is exponentially greater.”

For example, builders now have to follow a set of stormwater regulations handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Thirty years ago, if you wanted to come in and build a 30 lot subdivision, we just made sure you didn’t have a pipe dumping a bunch of rainwater out on your neighbor’s basement,” he said. “That’s about all we looked for because that was all we were required to look for. If you wanted to build a house in a flood plain and build it right beside the creek, it was probably okay.”

Now, the state requires houses constructed in a flood plain be elevated, and subdivisions must retain stormwater onsite and release it at the same rate as the land did pre-development.

“I’m not meaning to say we should not be doing that stuff,” he said. “I’m just saying that’s a change that is more time-consuming and costly and can be frustrating to us just as it is to our end customer.”

Johnson City Then and Now: Medical

For much of its early life, Johnson City was like many rural mountain towns — full of family practitioners and a few community hospitals.

That all changed in 1974.

In many respects, East Tennessee State University being awarded a medical school changed the course of Johnson City’s history. In addition to bringing “happiness” to a region that had fought for years to get a medical school established in Northeast Tennessee, it also brought opportunity, jobs and health care to a region that had struggled to attract quality providers before.

“(The) Quillen College of Medicine, really, is what contributes to our ability to have care in a region that otherwise may really have challenges in attracting providers,” Dr. William Block, ETSU’s dean of medicine, told The Press earlier this year.

After the establishment of the medical school in 1974, Johnson City’s premier hospital — the Johnson City Medical Center — began construction on a major expansion that would eventually lead it to become the region’s largest hospital — replete with one of only six level one trauma centers in the state.

After the merger between Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System, Johnson City Medical Center became one of Ballad Health’s primary medical centers, along with Holston Valley Medical Center.

But, as Johnson City’s population grew, so too did the need for another community healthcare facility, leading to the opening of the 80-bed Franklin Woods Community Hospital in 2010.

“I think we’re certainly anticipating continued growth in the areas we’re able to serve and expansion of services that the region is in need of,” Block said. “As we continue to do that, we’ll see increased quality and decreased costs across the region.”

Earlier this month, Ballad announced they have invested $27 million in capital projects around the region, and that since the Mountain States and Wellmont merger, more than 180 new providers have begun service in the region — 88 physicians and 94 advanced practice providers.

“Our performance has definitely improved, and we’re very grateful for that, but there’s still work to be done to get us to a level that’s similar to other stable health systems,” Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine told The Press in November.

Furthermore, Ballad is in the middle of a $6 million renovation at the Johnson City Medical Center, with plans to add more parking at the emergency room, another helipad and a second entrance for emergency medical vehicles, among other improvements.

“We’re the hub,” Ballad Health’s Southwest Market President StanHickson said of the center in November. “We want to take care of the sickest of the sick. That’s what we’re trained to do and in line to do, and that requires more intensive resources, so being able to expand our capacity in that component is vital.”

And though medical care in Johnson City has transformed and changed in a myriad of ways in its 150 years, much of what is seen today can be traced back to the establishment of ETSU’s medical school.

“We have the unique ability to make that applicable here because of having the college of medicine, the academic Health Sciences Center and the other four colleges to really teach and practice that in a manner (that) I think will be the future of health care,” Block said.

Then and Now: Tennessee history endures at Tipton-Haynes site

The Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site is dedicated to preserving the early history of Northeast Tennessee and to telling the story of the two prominent families who called the site home.

Tipton-Haynes includes 45 acres, 11 historic buildings, the Tipton/Gifford/Simerly cemetery and a limestone cave. Also on the grounds, visitors can see a buffalo trace, a nature trail and a natural spring.

The site’s Visitors Center features a permanent exhibit, a museum store and a library complete with archives.

Col. John Tipton, a hero of the American Revolution, purchased the site in 1784 after moving from Shenandoah County, Virginia, to settle in what was then Washington County, North Carolina.

In the next few years, Tipton — a North Carolina loyalist — would become embroiled in a controversy over statehood for the frontier territory.

In February of 1788, the Battle of the State of Franklin turned Tipton’s home into a battleground for Franklin independence.

Franklinites vs. Tiptonites

While tensions existed for more than three years with no major conflicts, friction between the Franklinites and the North Carolina loyalists (also called Tiptonites) eventually developed into an armed conflict.

Earlier that month, the North Carolina sheriff of Washington County, Jonathan Pugh, was ordered by the county court under Colonel John Tipton to seize property of John Sevier, governor of the state of Franklin, for taxes he owed to the state of North Carolina.

Pugh obeyed those orders and seized some of Sevier’s property, including taking several slaves from his home while Sevier was away in Greene County.

Sevier’s property and slaves were taken to Tipton’s cabin for safekeeping by the sheriff, which led to the Battle of the State of Franklin. An angry Sevier marched to Tipton’s property with 100 men on Feb 27, 1788 and positioned themselves a few hundred yards from his cabin. The colonel was now surrounded in his cabin with only his family and a handful of supporters.

The next day, Sevier sent a second flag of truce to Tipton requesting his surrender. Tipton replied: “To this flag I sent an answer, letting the men assembled there know that all I wanted was a submission to the laws of North Carolina, and if they would acquiesce with this proposal I would disband my troops here …”

Realizing that Tipton and his small party were not going to surrender, Sevier decided to lay siege to Tipton’s cabin instead of risking any bloodshed by assaulting the cabin.

After sneaking out of Tipton’s cabin, Major Robert Love joined his brother, Thomas Love, in raising a small party to reinforce Tipton. On the evening of  Feb. 28, Major Love’s party dashed into the Tipton cabin, when it was discovered the Franklinite sentries had left their post around the cave because of bitter cold weather.

Tipton troops were reinforced again Feb. 29 when Col. George Maxwell and his North Carolina loyalists from Sullivan County reached the Tipton cabin early that morning. They arrived during a heavy snowstorm and were not detected by Sevier’s men.

Not knowing exactly who fired first, both sides fired a volley at each other and upon hearing the shots, Col. Tipton decided to attack Sevier. While dashing out of his cabin, Col. Tipton exclaimed, “Boys, every man who is a soldier come out.”

The fight was brief, but decisive. following 10 minutes of fighting, Sevier and his men retreated back to Jonesborough. The state of Franklin would be dissolved more than a year later.

Col. John Tipton would later help Tennessee become the 16th state of the Union. His advisory — John Sevier — would be elected the first governor of the state of Tennessee.

Landon Carter Haynes

After his father’s death in 1813, John Tipton Jr.  inherited the property. Before moving to Washington County, the younger Tipton was already a successful state legislator and wealthy land owner in Blountville.

He expanded his father’s cabin in the 1820s, making it a Federal-style farmhouse. He died in Nashville in 1831 while attending Tennessee’s 19th General Assembly.

The heirs of John Tipton Jr. sold the property to David and Rhoda Haynes in 1837. The couple gave the home to their eldest son, Landon Carter Haynes, as a wedding gift in 1839.

In the 1850s, Haynes expanded the former Tipton home into how it appears today. Haynes is best known for being a Confederate senator, but he was also a state legislator, farmer and newspaper editor.

Even though Haynes was defeated in a bid for Congress 1859, he still had something to celebrate. It was that same year that the U.S. government changed the Johnson’s Depot post office name to Haynesville in his honor.

After the start of the Civil War, the United States changed the name back to Johnson’s Depot, but the Confederate States of America still referred to the town as Haynesville.

After losing his home during the Civil War, Haynes moved to Memphis, where he would reside until his death in 1875.

The historic home would eventually return to the Haynes family when Sarah L. Gifford Simerly purchased the property on May 1, 1882. Simerly was the niece of Landon Carter Haynes.

Famous Visitor

Between 1785 and 1796, famed 18th century French botanist Andre´ Michaux traveled most of Eastern North America from Florida to Quebec in search of local plants and trees that would be useful to his home country.

It was from his extensive travels that he wrote two influential field guides on indigenous plant life.

He became the first professionally trained botanist to explore Tennessee when he spent the night at Col. John Tipton’s log home on May 14, 1795. He would again spend the night at the Tipton home on March 20, 1796, after exploring Roan Mountain and other areas of Tennessee, stretching to the Mississippi River.

Today, Tipton-Haynes pays tribute to Michaux and his accomplishments with an exhibit in the historic site’s museum. Along with a brief biography of Michaux, who died in 1802, is a reproduction of his journal entry detailing his flora findings at the Tipton home.

Chamber of Commerce has offered key support in Johnson City’s growth

As we reflect on the Sesquicentennial celebration for Johnson City, we look back on the impact that the Chamber of Commerce has played in the development of our community. The Johnson City Chamber has been the advocate and voice of our business community since 1915.

The population of Johnson City increased because of the railroad and being a destination for commerce and employment. Throughout the past century and a half, we have transitioned from a farming to industrial and manufacturing economy, which created the need for an organization such as the Chamber to unite the business community, provide opportunities and resources, networking, credibility, recruitment, and advocacy for its stakeholders and community.

As we focus on the history of the Johnson City Chamber, the leaders of our organization have been the champions that encouraged and led this community to grow into the place we proudly call home. This region has grown from the vision and hard work of many of our business leaders, beginning with our first Chamber Chair Amzi Smith to our current chair Neil Poland with Mullican Flooring.

Many institutions and projects that were championed by our business leaders are still a part of our city today. In 1924, the Hotel John Sevier was constructed and funded by subscriptions collected by the Chamber. We also worked closely with Elizabethton to secure the American Bemberg Plant in 1926. Throughout the middle of the century, the Chamber participated in the founding of General Shale, the opening of Tri-Cities Regional Airport, and the first broadcast at WJHL.

Johnson City business leaders were the key supporters for the East Tennessee Normal School, which formed four years before the Chamber of Commerce. We now recognize this institution as East Tennessee State University, which is the fourth-largest university in Tennessee. The growth of ETSU has aligned with the support of the Chamber and community to develop the Quillen College of Medicine and the Gatton College of Pharmacy.

Industrial recruitment for Washington County was directed by the Chamber with the forming of the JC Industrial Park Corporation to purchase and recruit new industries to the county. We were home to Harris Tarkett Flooring, Gordon’s Inc, Sherman Concrete Company, Accurate Machine Products, and many other manufacturers. The Model Mill Company, located on West Walnut Street, produced Red Band Flour, and once renovated, will become the new home for the Chamber in 2020.

We need to acknowledge the many men and women who pioneered the growth of Johnson City from the railroad to becoming a leading destination for Rural Healthcare Services and Innovation. The Chamber of Commerce has been fortunate to have so many dedicated volunteers and business leaders throughout the century that were on the frontlines for many of our city’s accomplishments. We were fortunate to have the leadership of Gary Mabrey as our president and CEO over the past three decades that provided the strong foundation and positioned the Chamber and our community for the growth we are experiencing today.

As we transition into a new decade, the Johnson City Chamber is excited about our move to the Model Mill. Not only will our organization have a home representative of the quality of our services, but will also enhance our ability to position our community for growth. We hope to recruit new organizations and people to the region and plan to tell our story at the Model Mill location overlooking downtown Johnson City. In addition to our traditional Chamber services, we plan to offer more services and direction for entrepreneurs and business development in the region.

The Chamber’s Convention & Visitors Bureau invites visitors to our community through conventions, sporting, and special events. The impact from tourism brings a significant amount of revenue into our economy which helps to sustain growth and lower the tax base for all citizens. Tourism is also a front door for recruiting people and talent to our region, whether it’s young professionals appreciating our many outdoor amenities, or retirees that enjoy the value of Johnson City’s quality of life.

At this Sesquicentennial, we celebrate our history and the leaders that provided the benefits and opportunities we enjoy today and look optimistically to the future of Johnson City growing healthier and stronger.

Bob Cantler is president and CEO of The Chamber of Commerce serving Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County.


A letter to the future: Dear Johnson City Mayor of 2069

Serving as mayor during Johnson City’s Sesquicentennial Celebration has been a great honor. I have learned so much about our beloved city, mostly from you.

Our community has researched our history, recorded it in books, articles and events, and educated each other about how we became this great city. Our sesquicentennial will culminate today at the Legacy Plaza, which includes a history circle and tri-star area, at King Commons.

This legacy project will forever tell the story of Johnson City and give future generations a space to add their own moments of history. Beneath the plaza, we will bury a time capsule to be opened in 50 years. Included will be a letter from me to the Mayor of 2069. That person may be just a teenager now or may not even be born yet, but I know whoever it is, they will inherit this wonderful, beautiful city we call home. I’d like to share my letter with you and hope that if you are able, you will attend the opening of the bicentennial time capsule and remember reading it in the Johnson City Press way back in 2019.

Happy birthday, Johnson City. Thank you for an amazing year.

Dear Mayor of 2069,

Greetings from 2019. It has been a great year in Johnson City as we celebrated our sesquicentennial birthday. Our citizens have taken time to research the past, record it in books, articles and events, and educate each other about our heritage. It was with thoughtful consideration that our Sesquicentennial Commission elected to leave the legacy project – a natural adventure area playground, tri-star area, and history circle – at King Commons for future generations to enjoy. Our history is now literally set in stone, never to be forgotten.

Congratulations on your 200th birthday. I can only imagine the advances that have been made in 50 years. As you reveal our time capsule, you will likely get a chuckle at the technology that fuels our communication today. Just in case it has changed, our cell phones are the center of our lives. We take pictures (especially selfies), save them to “the cloud,” post to Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and spread all our news on Twitter. If we don’t “Google” information on the internet ourselves, we ask virtual assistants Siri or Alexa to do it for us. As all our data becomes electronic, protecting it is a constant endeavor in 2019. I hope your digital assets are safe in 2069.

The City Commission of 2019 has had a very active year. Mayor Jenny Brock, Vice Mayor Joe Wise, Commissioner Dr. Todd Fowler, Commissioner Dr. Larry Calhoun and Commissioner John Hunter, City Manager Pete Peterson and our 900 City employees leave you our annual report. We are most proud of the features we have added to improve the quality of life of our citizens. Johnson City is becoming a premier destination for outdoor enthusiasts. We are leveraging our natural assets with investments like Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park and the Tweetsie Trail. We believe outdoor recreation not only draws visitors in but enhances quality of place so that people and businesses want to call Johnson City home. I hope that vision is your reality in 2069.

On the city’s bicentennial birthday, we send our best wishes for a year of peace and prosperity. While we are leaving you a healthy and vibrant city, we also recognize that you will still face challenges. We hope we have provided a foundation that is resilient and sustainable as you work toward success for this beautiful place we call home.

With regard,

Jenny L. Brock

Mayor, City of Johnson City


Downtown Johnson City changes with the times

Over the last 150 years, downtown Johnson City has gone through several transformations, from a small railroad outpost to a bustling center of commerce to a ghost town to a historic small business district.

Founder and first mayor Henry Johnson got to work even before the town’s incorporation. He bought a half-acre near the intersection of a main stagecoach road and a new railroad branch in 1856 and built a small home and general store.

Through several expansions, he established a railroad depot and post office, creating a population and business center in the countryside.

After Johnson City’s incorporation in 1869, Johnson was unanimously elected its leader.

The Reconstruction period after the Civil War was kind to the city. Three railroad lines passed through its downtown, bringing mined ore, farm products and passengers to their depots.

The city prospered and attracted investment from industrialists and land developers who built whole neighborhoods on its outskirts.

Though national economic busts stalled some of the planned projects, the city’s population grew, and its downtown remained a retail and business center well into the 1960s.

Current Mayor Jenny Brock worked at the Penney’s department store on Main Street in the late ’60s. She remembers a bustling downtown core.

“It was the center of everything, banking, attorneys, retail, everything was downtown,” she said. “It was a very vibrant and energetic place. During Christmas parades, you could hardly move down the streets it was so crowded.”

As a younger child, Brock said downtown was a place people dressed up to visit. Friends and neighbors would meet at the businesses, creating a social hub there, as well.

Brock moved away in 1969, shortly before downtown Johnson City started a downhill slide.

The ’70s saw a new shopping district established on the city’s north side, following a trend of standalone department stores and shopping malls.

The mall opened in 1971 on North Roan Street. From then through the ’80s, downtown’s retail businesses moved away, leaving empty storefronts.

Without investment and economic activity, the area floundered. Buildings became blighted, and only a few stores and offices remained.

Heavy rains flooded the streets, compounding problems and discouraging business owners.

Brock returned in the ’80s to find a very different downtown.

“When I came back I was heartbroken,” she said. “It was like a desert. There was very little activity and it was rundown looking. It was very sad to see.”

The 2000s brought renewed interest downtown. Other cities were revitalizing their central cores, and officials wanted to follow suit.

The city’s Historic Zoning Commission overlaid a historic district on the area and set to work preserving the old structures.

Work also began on a plan to better manage floodwater from nearby creeks. The multimillion dollar plan established Founders Park and King Commons, providing green space and relieving some of the frequent and costly deluges.

As business owners and investors saw the city’s officials’ commitment to downtown, they too began to believe in its potential.

Developers rehabilitated two dilapidated train depots and moved restaurants in. Long dark storefronts were once again filled with products and customers.

The Model Mill, left empty by the flour company that owned it, is getting new life, and will soon be filled by retail businesses and offices. City officials likewise hope to transform the John Sevier Center into a business hub.

“Today, when I see that vibrancy coming back, it connects me to my fondest memories of downtown,” Brock said. “It’s starting to become very familiar to me, except people complain a lot more about parking, when they didn’t before.”

Still, with new open air retail shopping centers going up in neighboring towns and one proposed in Boones Creek, Brock said efforts should be made to preserve downtown’s vibrancy.

“After what happened early ’70s, the excitement about the mall, I think more could have been done to help retain downtown’s business activity,” she said. “There should have been programs in place to keep businesses from closing and moving. As we think about a new development in Boones Creek soon, we need to be keeping an eye on that and make sure downtown and North Roan stay vibrant centers for activity.”

Rails to highways and trails: Keeping Johnson City moving

From the first rail spike in 1857 to the improvement of Exit 17 on Interstate 26 in 2019, roads have forged the way for Johnson City’s development.

This town is known as the Gateway to Appalachia for good reason.

While trains may not be the dominant economic driver they were through the first half of Johnson City’s history, they continue to chug through downtown on a daily basis. Meanwhile, thousands of vehicles pass over the tracks on I-26 on the crucial route through the mountains between Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia. Since the 1980s, the city’s major artery, State of Franklin Road, has run in part along the path of the old tracks.

The railroads

Henry Johnson knew how important transportation was for success. That’s why he established his store where the stage road met the path of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad in 1865, a year before the railway entered Washington County. The ET&V built a water tank at the store, birthing the settlement of Johnson’s Tank, which would become Johnson’s Depot and ultimately Johnson City.

In 1866, a second railroad, the legendary East Tennessee & Western North Carolina, was chartered to haul magnetite iron ore out of the mountains. Construction began in spring 1868, a year before the newly dubbed Johnson City was chartered, and the “Tweetsie” railway to Cranberry, North Carolina, was completed in 1882.

Suddenly, this was a boom town. The combination of the railroad crossing and the iron route made this the perfect setting for the smelting industry — it was the “Pittsburgh of the South.” The city’s population grew from around 500 people to 4,200 by 1893.

Amid the boom, industrialist John T. Wilder, a former Civil War general, brought yet another railroad here. Wilder pinned his hopes of capitalizing on Johnson City’s growth by building the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad, a proposed a 625-mile line with headquarters here. Wilder established a neighboring community east of Johnson City, naming it Carnegie in hopes of attracting the interests of magnate Andrew Carnegie to the furnace business. Tracks were built from here to Erwin, and grading was well underway into Virginia when the “3 C’s” collapsed in the depression of 1893 and took the town of Carnegie along with it.

But in the early 20th century, entrepreneur George L. Carter bought the bones of the 3 C’s and developed the Clinchfield, Carolina & Ohio Railroad to haul loads from the coalfields of Southwest Virginia north and south. The Clinchfield’s success made Johnson City the hub where three railroads met. Carter’s investment here would pave the way for education in Northeast Tennessee. He donated land in southwest Johnson City for the state Normal School, an institution that began training teachers for the region’s rural communities in 1911. Today, that school is East Tennessee State University.

With the move to freight and passenger transportation over highways and airlines, the railroad business declined across the country in the second half of the 20th century. The ET&WNC abandoned in its narrow gauge line in 1950. Trains continued on the standard gauge segment of the line from Johnson City to Elizabethton until the East Tennessee Railway abandoned the line in 2009. The city of Johnson City purchased that abandoned path and created the Tweetsie Trail, a 10-mile rails-to-trails path for biking, running and walking.

Today, CSX (Clinchfield’s successor) and the Norfolk Southern Railway continue to run freight through the city on a smaller scale. In recent years, both the ET&WNC and Clinchfield depots have been remodeled for modern business use.

Public transportation

Around the turn of the 20th century, travelers on horse-drawn carriages and wagons found themselves sharing Johnson City’s streets with streetcars. The Johnson City & Carnegie Street Railway Co. operated 4 miles of rail in 1892. Riders not only could make their way through downtown’s busy streets, they could ride east into the neighboring community of Carnegie and out the town’s Main Street (today’s East Oakland Avenue) to go boating on Lake Watusee, later known as Cox’s Lake.

By 1912, the Johnson City Traction Corp. was sending trolleys over more than 6 miles of track. A magazine once estimated that between 1892 and 1921, more than a million passengers rode the city trolley. With the increasing affordability of private automobiles, however, trolley ridership declined steadily in the 1920s. The old streetcar rails still sit below downtown’s streets.

Yesteryear columnist Bob Cox has reported that Johnson City faced a dilemma in 1931 with the need to replace old street cars with expensive new ones while expanding routes with new rails and overhead cables. Johnson City Traction proposed that streetcars be replaced with buses. The city agreed and acquired five new Mack Model BG 21-passenger vehicles.

Private companies continued to manage buses and routes through Johnson City through the 1970s. Today, the city’s bus fleet is managed by the Johnson City Transit, which was created in 1979 as the first new municipal transit system in Tennessee since World War II. On a fleet of 20-some vehicles, people make hundreds of thousands of trips each year throughout the city’s expanded footprint on 20 routes.

The Transit Center, at 137 W. Market St., was built in 1986 on the former site of the Tennessee Theater. In recent years, the center was equipped with modern technology giving administrators access to real-time rider data. The JCT also operates the city’s school buses.

Johnson City’s Highways

The Appalachian Highway — designated as I-26 through Unicoi, Washington and Sullivan counties — is the major route through Johnson City for both local commuters and travelers going to and from Asheville, North Carolina. In the Johnson City area alone, an estimated 64,230 vehicles travel the route per day, according to the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s 2017 figures. Trucks account for 6% of that total. TDOT recently improved the I-26 interchange at Exit 13 in Gray to accommodate northerly growth, and a similar project is underway at Exit 17 in Boones Creek.

Drivers also make their way between Jonesborough, Johnson City and Bristol along U.S. Highway 11E, from here to Kingsport on Tenn. Highway 36 and from here to Elizabethton along U.S. Highway 321.

State of Franklin Road takes motorists on a three-quarters loop around Johnson City from downtown past ETSU and Johnson City Medical Center and north to I-26 before merging into the Bristol Highway in north Johnson City. The road’s development has in part facilitated Johnson City’s growth in education, medicine, retail and other business sectors.

Today in Johnson City History: Dec. 1

Dec. 1, 1869: Johnson City received its charter from the state of Tennessee.

Dec. 1, 1887: The Comet reported that “A New York musical journal says Mrs. Potter is ‘a born amateur.’ And it is not likely that she will ever outgrow it.” The same issue also reported that “Boston society has promised to read the Bible this winter. Boston fashionables are always looking for something new.”

Dec. 1, 1894: The Johnson City and Carnegie Street Railroad Company stopped operating.

Dec. 1, 1898: The people of the First Ward would not make Mel Weiler a city dad” at the aldermanic election, but his wife was more considerate and on his return from Salt River, presented him with a bouncing baby girl, the Comet reported.

Dec. 1, 1910: Ed Ryan, who shot and killed Will Ryan and his wife, Ocie Ryan, and also shot at his own wife, Cissie Ryan, and then shot himself in Johnson City, was to remain in the Jonesboro Jail until the February term of the Circuit Court.

Dec. 1, 1925: Johnson City’s J.A. Higgins spent the day in Kingsport on business.

Dec. 1, 1930: District Vice Commander Brick Smith was among several members of Johnson City’s American Legion post who attended addresses by Tennessee Commander John H. McCall and Adjutant Guy H. May at Kingsport’s Municipal Building.

Dec. 1, 1940: The Appalachian Baseball League’s annual meeting of directors took place in Johnson City. Johnson City Press Publisher Carl A. Jones Jr. was elected vice president.

Dec. 1, 1949: Burley tobacco warehouses reported fewer rejections of bids than any other season. One warehouse had none. Tobacco prices averaged 45 cents per pound in the East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia markets.

Dec. 1, 1953: “Vice Squad” starring Edward G. Robinson and Paulette Goddard was playing at the Tennessee Theater. The Tennessee stood at the corner Boone and West Main, present site of the Johnson City Transit Center.

Dec. 1, 1955: East Tennessee State College announced it had adopted a university-like engineering curriculum. Students could do their first three years of training before spending the senior year at the University of Tennessee with no loss of credit.

Dec. 1, 1960: The Johnson City Junior High lost a home basketball game 39-32 to Kingsport’s John Sevier Junior High. Buck Oxendine was Johnson City’s high scorer with nine points.

Dec. 1, 1965: A Tennessee Highway Patrol chase in Johnson City ended in a crash that sent a woman into surgery for head injures. The woman’s 17-year-old boyfriend was charged with reckless driving and driving without a license.

Dec. 1, 1966: Science Hill High School alumnus Steve Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy as quarterback of the Florida Gators.

Dec. 1, 1969: The Johnson City Press-Chronicle published a photo of a billboard highlighting the “Hope of Tomorrow” at the site for the future Liberty Bell and Freedom Hall complex behind Science Hill High School.

Dec. 1, 1970: Joe Whitehead tipped in a basket at the buzzer to give Science Hill’s Hilltoppers a 53-52 victory against Bristol’s Tennessee High.

Dec. 1, 1975: A Pontiac Firebird outran police cruisers in a chase on Cherokee Road. The driver then fled down Highway 107, which was blocked by Greene County deputies at the line. He escaped down a side road and deputies spotted the sports car on roads in the South Central community but were unable to stop it. Six warrants were issued for the driver’s arrest.

Dec. 1, 1977: Commissioner Warren Vest stormed out of a Johnson City Commission meeting saying he had not received a full agenda.

Dec. 1, 1992: East Tennessee State University officials courted a group of state senators in hopes of garnering $22.6 million for a new library.

Dec. 1, 1996: The Johnson City Press reported that new dress codes at Science Hill High School and Liberty Bell Middle School included bans on ripped jeans, short skirts, bicycle shorts, tank tops and underwear-revealing baggy shorts.

Dec. 1, 2000: East Tennessee State University hosted sections of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in the D.P. Culp University Center while offering HIV testing on the campus.

Dec. 1, 2006: On the second anniversary of Jackson Rice’s birth, “Jackson’s Playground” was dedicated at the Salvation Army in Johnson City. Baby Jackson Rice and his twin Brayden were born one minute apart and months before they should have been. Jackson’s struggle lasted two days before he died, but his twin survived after after spending three months in the neonatal Intense Care Unit at Johnson City Medical Center. Their father, Herman Rice, was program director at the Salvation Army.

Dec. 1, 2010: A cold front swept into Johnson City bringing a light snow to the city’s streets.

Dec. 1, 2015: Gov. Bill Haslam announced that Tennessee would establish governing boards for each of the six universities not governed by the University of Tennessee. The change removed ETSU and the other five schools from the Tennessee Board of Regents, which continued to oversee community colleges and technical schools.

Dec. 1, 2018: The Johnson City Christmas Parade ran from ETSU to downtown Johnson City. The theme was “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and the winning float was built by Central Baptist Church.

Sources: City of Johnson City; The Comet; Johnson City Postcard History Series; Kingsport Times; Johnson City Press; Johnson City Press-Chronicle; Ted Bowers/Johnson City, Tennessee, Memories; Johnson City Press.