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.

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