Johnson City commissioners give their blessing to sesquicentennial project

“You’re on the right track.”

That was the message Johnson City commissioners delivered during a Wednesday workshop to the committee tasked with raising about $1 million to build an adventure playground and historical plaza at King Commons Park to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary in 2019.

With bids for the project expected to be authorized in early April, the workshop was organized to ensure city commissioners, Sesquicentennial commissioners, city staff and the company designing the playground and plaza were all on the same page.

Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, who organized the meeting, said she felt better about the project after the workshop concluded.

“I do, I feel very good. We’ve talked about all sorts of different things, and they’ve finally landed on this,” Brock said. “This is all about our young people, and it’s going to be exciting to leave this legacy park to our young people for years and years and years to come.”

Depending on how much money is raised by March, the Sesquicentennial Commission’s first priority is to build the adventure playground, then the history plaza; last is a proposed fountain.

Based on the latest rendering, Jennifer Salyer, project manager at Barge Design Solutions, said the natural playground would include an outdoor classroom, a slide, climbing ropes and nets, a musical play area with a variety of instruments, a storybook station.

The history plaza would feature the three-star emblem on the Tennessee state flag,  initially designed by Johnson City attorney LeRoy Reeves. In the center of the plaza would be an ornamental dome and various “bands,” describing significant events in Johnson City’s history, would circle the dome.

Based on a presentation from Salyer, the estimated construction cost of the playground would be $1.15 million and the history plaza would be $450,000. Including the estimated $188,000 cost for restrooms and a 10-percent contingency for construction and design, the total signature project is expected to be a little more than $2 million.

Salyer’s playground design did include making modifications to parking for ADA accessibility, but City Manager Pete Peterson said some cost savings could be achieved by designating the street for ADA parking.

Since launching the “quiet phase” of its fundraising initiative in early November, the Sesquicentennial Commission’s fundraising committee has collected $585,000 in donations and commitments. The fundraising committee is also expected to receive around $205,000 in in-kind donations.

The city has already committed to spend $1.3 million on the project, leaving the Sesquicentennial Commission with about $500,000 more to raise before its March 1 deadline.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola, who’s been helping coordinate the project, said bids for the playground and history plaza will come in around March 27, and commissioners will vote to authorize those bids during their first meeting of April.

If necessary, Pindzola assured the commission that his department could step in and complete some of the work to make ends meet.

All five Johnson City commissioners at Wednesday’s meeting commended the Sesquicentennial Commission and its committees for the work they’ve accomplished so far.

Without their help, Commissioner Joe Wise said getting this project completed before the 150-year celebration in December 2019 would not be possible.

“This is contiguous to the library, its contiguous to King Commons and it creates one continuous band of public infrastructure that is only possible, right now, because of the Sesquicentennial (Commission),” Wise said. “Is it exactly what I’d hoped? No. But is it generally in the right direction? Absolutely … Just plow on. I think we’re on the right track.”

Unexpected changes come for city 150th celebration committee

Changes announced this week by Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock to the direction and plans of the commission tasked with celebrating the city’s 150th anniversary took some of the group’s own members by surprise.

In an email early Wednesday morning from Brock, who was elected mayor last week by the City Commission seated in November’s election, she informed Sesquicentennial Commission members that the new city commissioners want to be more engaged in the 150th anniversary celebration in 2019.

As implementation draws near for the plans laid by the Sesquicentennial Commission since members were appointed nearly a year ago, Brock announced new appointments Dianna Cantler from the Johnson City Development Authority and Brenda Whitson from the Chamber of Commerce, expected to be confirmed by city commissioners next week, and laid out three committees she’d like to see the Sesquicentennial Commission to adopt.

Brock said Wednesday the suggested committees, Capital Project and Fundraising, Events and Historian, had already started to form organically as the group’s members met and doled out responsibilities.

“Getting into this new phase, we saw some areas where we could reorganize the focus of some of the members and carry out and deliver things created during the planning process,” Brock said. … “We’re in a place where things need to happen and they need to happen in a faster time frame. If we link with the commission now, we can make things happen.”

The mayor’s email also lays out changes to the structure of the Sesquicentennial Commission’s meetings, with Brock named the facilitator of the meetings and the liaison from the City Commission. The Sesquicentennial Commission’s elected chair, Rebecca Henderson, would serve as an adviser as the group transitions to implementing its historical celebration plans.

Henderson said she was surprised Tuesday when she was asked to meet with Brock to discuss the changes to the celebration committee.

She said she’d asked for more help from city officials in the planning process, because most of the Sesquicentennial Commission’s members work full time. But Henderson didn’t quite expect such drastic changes to the group’s structure.

Brock’s email also suggested changes to the kickoff event the celebration commission planned for Jan. 3, a little more than two weeks away.

Instead of a single event to start the festivities at the downtown Pavilion at Founders Park, Brock wrote that “city staff was very concerned it was too risky to hold it in an outdoor setting.”

Instead, she recommended breaking up the single event into three, with a ceremonial swearing in of Johnson City’s first mayor and a commission proclamation during the City Commission’s Jan. 3 meeting, a VIP reception for donors and a private showing of the contents of a time capsule and renderings of the commission’s legacy project earlier that day at a time and date to be determined, and a public showing of the time capsule’s contents around noon on Jan. 5 at White Duck Taco in downtown Johnson City.

Asked about the proposed changes, Henderson said “I have to be OK with them,” but said “other members might be upset about the process.”

Brock said she talked about the proposed changes with most of the Sesquicentennial Commission’s members, and they viewed them favorably. Though she said she hadn’t sat down with the full City Commission to discuss them, most of the city commissioners agreed after a status update from the Sesquicentennial Commission last month that more city involvement was needed.

Henderson said she’s glad the city is getting more involved in the 150th celebration to give the milestone anniversary the attention it deserves.

“I led the team through the planning phase, and now the city will ensure our plans come to fruition,” she said. “I’m still lending my expertise to see it through completion.”

Railroads, iron, education and health care: A Johnson City timeline

As Johnson City readies for its 150th birthday a year from now, we thought we’d highlight some of the town’s highlights in a timeline. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but here are some key events in Johnson City’s history:

1769: Tennessee’s first colonizer William Bean built a cabin along Boones Creek.

1780s: Col. John Tipton established his farm in what is now south Johnson City. During the effort to establish the State of Franklin, Tipton was a leader among loyalists who wished to remain part of North Carolina. On Feb. 27, 1788, the two sides clashed in the Battle of Franklin at Tipton’s farm, which is now the Tipton-Haynes State Historic Site.

1849: The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad was chartered to be built from Knoxville to the Virginia state line at Bristol.

1856: Founding father Henry Johnson built his store near Brush Creek along the stage road adjacent to the railroad’s path and waited for the railroad to come to him.

1857: The East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad construction crew entered Washington County and built a water tank at Johnson’s store, giving the new town its first designation, “Johnson’s Tank.”

1860s: The town’s name was briefly changed to “Haynesville” during the Civil War in honor of Confederate Sen. Landon Carter Haynes. The town’s original name was restored after the war.

1866: The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina (ET&WNC) Railroad is chartered to bring another railroad to Johnson City. The line ran from Johnson’s Depot to the Cranberry magnetite iron ore deposits in North Carolina. Construction began in spring 1868 and the railway to Cranberry was completed in 1882.

Oct. 27, 1867: The original Science Hill Male and Female Institute was dedicated on a knob overlooking downtown with classes beginning the following August. On Jan. 20, 1880, a charter was granted to Science Hill as a private school. It later became a public school as Johnson City’s high school. A new building was erected on the same site in the 1910s, and the school moved to its current location in 1960.

Dec. 1, 1869: Johnson City receives its first charter from the state of Tennessee. The town would became a strategic rail junction for the southeastern United States. Three rail lines — the Southern, the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway and the ET&WNC — all met near the site of Johnson’s original depot.

Jan. 3, 1870: Henry Johnson received all 60 votes to be elected the city’s first mayor.

1870s and 1880s: Johnson City’s economy booms as its railroad hub and iron smelting industry position the city to become the “Pittsburgh of the South.” The city’s population grew from around 500 people to 4,200 by 1893.

1889: Civil War Gen. John T. Wilder established the Carnegie Land and Auction Company east of Johnson City to capitalize on the iron boom. Carnegie included its own Main, Center and Broadway Streets and a hotel built in 1891. Newspaper accounts at the time indicated that backers hoped to draw industrialist Andrew Carnegie to build a steel plant here by offering to change Johnson City’s name to Carnegie. Wilder also built the Carnegie Furnace, later renamed “Cranberry,” in Johnson City to refine iron. Ironically, Johnson City would eventually absorb Carnegie, hence Broadway, Center and the avenues named 8th-12th in the eastern section of town. Both Carnegie and Wilder’s “3-Cs” railroad failed via the depression of 1893 caused by a run on the banks, knocking the bottom out of Johnson City’s iron market. Johnson City’s iron boom was also diminished by the plentiful supply of iron from the Mesabi Range of Minnesota.

April 14, 1891: U.S. President Benjamin Harrison visits Johnson City as part of his “whistle-stop” tour with speeches at key locations and what is touted as the first transcontinental tour by a president. An estimated crowd of 5,000 people turned out to hear Harrison speak.

1901: Congress established the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers adjacent to Johnson City. Construction was complete and the facility opened in 1903 with the original 37 buildings completed in 1910. Today, the campus is the Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center and National Cemetery, Mountain Home.

1904: The iconic Lady of the Fountain was erected on Fountain Square.

1908: Johnson City’s downtown streets are paved with brick.

April 2-3, 1910: The Carnegie Hotel was destroyed by fire.

1911: The East Tennessee State Normal School, a higher education campus for developing schoolteachers, was established southwest of downtown Johnson City. The school would grow into what is now East Tennessee State University. Both the Soldiers Home and the Normal School marked the origins of Johnson City’s next boom.

1921: Appalachian Hospital, later Memorial Hospital, opens in downtown Johnson City.

1924: The John Sevier Hotel opened on Aug. 5. The hotel was planned in three stages, with a second section completed in 1929. The third phase was never completed.

1928-29: The Columbia Records recording sessions now known as the Johnson City Sessions took place, making Johnson City’s “Fiddlin’ Charlie” Bowman a national recording star.

June 1934: The Johnson City Press begins publication and later absorbs the city’s other daily newspapers.

1943: Johnson City’s higher education institution became East Tennessee State College.

May 10, 1955: The voters of the city of Johnson City elected to become a home rule municipality.

1958: ETSC integrates, enrolling its first four black students.

1963: ETSC becomes East Tennessee State University.

1965: The Johnson City School District integrates.

1970s: Most of Johnson City’s business sector moves north with the opening of Kmart and the Miracle Mall, marking a downturn for downtown.

Oct. 20, 1970: President Richard M. Nixon visits Johnson City and speaks at ETSU.

March 12, 1974: The state Legislature overrode Gov. Winfield Dunn’s veto to establish a medical school at ETSU and the VA. The first class of 24 students arrived on campus four years later. The school would bring much needed medical care to rural Northeast Tennessee and pave the way for health-oriented growth of Johnson City that continues today.

May 14, 1976: President Gerald Ford visited Johnson City, speaking at Freedom Hall Civic Center on the campaign trail.

1980s and 1990s: State of Franklin Road was developed as arterial loop around Johnson City.

1980: Johnson City Medical Center opens, replacing the old Memorial Hospital.

Dec. 24, 1989: The former John Sevier Hotel — by then a center for low-income residents — burned, killing 16 people.

2000s: The revitalization of downtown Johnson City gains steam.

2009: Niswonger Children’s Hospital opens at Johnson City Medical Center.

2014: Founders Park is completed in downtown Johnson City as part of the city’s flood mitigation project. That project, including the park, became the catalyst for downtown’s progress.

August 2014: The Tweetsie Trail rails-to-trails project opens between Johnson City and Elizabethton on the former ET&WNC rail bed.

Jan. 31, 2018: Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System merge to form Ballad Health as the major medical provider for the greater Tri-Cities area and most of Southwest Virginia.

Oct. 1, 2018: President Donald J. Trump visited Johnson City as he campaigned for U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn.

Johnson City starts small, dreams big

On Dec. 1, 1869, 149 years ago today, Johnson City was first chartered.

We’ve grown and changed a lot since then, from a little village on the road between already established towns, to a bustling industrial boom town full of hope and promise, to a modern city with strong educational and medical institutions, proudly offering its nearby natural beauty for the world to enjoy.

There are plenty of stories to tell about the city’s people, places and events from the last century and a half, and the Johnson City Press hopes to recount many of them for you leading up to the milestone 150th anniversary next December.

Our staff is working with the Johnson City Sesquicentennial Commission, the people planning the 150th celebration, to bring you all the Johnson City history you can handle.

One feature, “Today in Johnson City History,” will give you a daily dose of the important happenings over the last 150 years. We’ll also be dedicating our weekly Heritage stories specifically to Johnson City for the next year, and we’re starting a people profile series looking at the important players in our community.

We have more ways to celebrate planned, and we’ll be announcing those exciting developments later, but for now, let’s talk about where it all started.

Founder Henry Johnson purchased land from Tipton Jobe at the intersection of the East Tennessee, Virginia Railroad Company’s line from Chattanooga to Bristol and the stage coach route from Washington, D.C., to Knoxville, now Market Street.. He built a general store there in 1853, planting the seed of what grew to be the city’s downtown core.

With an established foothold, other families began settling in the area around Johnson’s store, and his scratched-out patch of land became a tiny town.

Johnson’s entrepreneurial spirit drove him to expand his operations, and he began offering lodging for travelers, then built a railroad depot, where he took on all the freight and ticketing jobs associated with the new stop.

He then convinced the authorities to relocate the local post office from “Blue Plum,” a residence two miles away on Sinking Creek, to what had become known as “Johnson’s Depot.” In addition to his shopkeeping, hotelier and rail agent duties, he became postmaster and handled all the mail himself.

According to a 1922 article in the Johnson City Chronicle, Johnson would carry the mail to the back of his store and call out the addresses on the post as village residents waited for theirs to be called.

In 1869, after the conclusion of the Civil War, the town was officially chartered as Johnson City. In the first city election on Jan. 3 ,1870, Johnson was unanimously elected as its first mayor.

Five years later, on Feb. 25, 1874, he died, leaving behind a legacy in the town that bears his name.