Johnson City surrendered its charter in 1879, but why?

Zach Vance • Dec 23, 2018 at 12:01 AM

In December 2019, the City of Johnson City will celebrate its sesquicentennial, marking 150 years since the city first gained its charter from the state of Tennessee in 1869.  

But, if you actually count the total number of years Johnson City has been chartered by the state, it’s only 144 years. That’s because in 1879, the Johnson City municipal government actually relinquished its charter to the state and briefly operated as a taxing district for six years. 

The rationale behind the city’s decision to surrender its charter varies, depending on which historical interpretation you read, but the catalyst can certainly be traced to the Tennessee state legislature passing a law known as the Four-Mile Act in 1877.

The initial version of the law prohibited the sale of alcohol within four miles of any chartered school that was located outside of an incorporated town, but with industrialization booming, businessman General John T. Wilder apparently had concerns that alcohol was also contributing to a lack of productivity in his workforce. 

Paul Fink wrote in Jonesborough: The First Century of Tennessee’s First Town, that Wilder actually helped get the Four-Mile Act passed through the state legislature. In addition to schools, the law included language that banned alcohol sales within four miles of an iron works. At the time, Wilder reportedly owned several iron works. 

Because Johnson City was considered an incorporated town, the city’s three saloons were unimpeded by the law’s passage. However, more and more upper- and middle-class citizens wanted to see alcohol abolished from Johnson City.  

In 1873, the Jonesboro Herald and Tribune reported that the women of Johnson City were soliciting the help of the women in Greeneville “in the noble cause of eradicating alcohol from their midst,” according to author Steve Buono in the 25th issue of the State of Franklin Magazine. 

“Their efforts were not successful. Bars remained plentiful and problematic that by 1879, Johnson City voters decided to forfeit their nine-year-old town charter to activate what was known as the ‘Four-Mile Law,’” Buono wrote. 

Johnson City wasn’t the only town to surrender its charter to become an alcohol-free haven. At the meeting of the state legislature on Jan. 19, 1879, Johnson City, Jonesborough and several other towns and cities in the state surrendered their charter in order to invoke the Four-Mile Act.

Other historical versions claim Johnson City’s charter was not surrendered but revoked by the state, according to the 1931 version of The Works Progress Administration Guide to Tennessee. 

Judge Samuel Cole Williams wrote in 1940 that the charter was “abolished in 1879 by the legislature” with “all corporation books and records to be turned over to the county court clerk at Jonesboro.” 

Despite the enactment of the Four-Mile Act, alcohol remained plentiful in Johnson City. 

“In 1885, a local newspaper, the Comet, reported that the women of Johnson City were tired of dragging their men home drunk and broke every other day. These weary wives eventually gained enough sympathy that a sunshine law was passed to force bars to close before dark,” Buono wrote. 

Once its charter was surrendered, Johnson City and Jonesboro became taxing districts. 

“On the order of the state legislature, the records of Johnson City for the first 10 years were boxed and taken (within 30 days of the dissolution of the charter) to Jonesborough for safekeeping by the Washington County clerk. In 1958 those records were transferred to the Archives of Appalachia, ETSU, for storage and safekeeping,” Stahl wrote in Greater Johnson City, A Pictorial History

“Johnson City soon discovered that the taxing district form of government was inadequate to cope with the new growth. Furthermore, the taxing district didn’t produce the same revenue as a corporate city. Therefore, the city fathers applied for a new charter and received one with the same boundary lines and name as the first one.” 

Johnson City regained its charter in 1885, while Jonesborough did not receive another charter until 1903. 

The Four-Mile Law was amended in 1887 to apply to all schools, whether in incorporated towns or not, and in 1899, the law was extended to cover towns with populations of 2,000 or less, provided they incorporated after the law was passed. Prohibition was eventually implemented in Tennessee in 1909, but the effort largely failed due to a lack of enforcement.