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Some of Johnson City's most important early buildings were train stations and most are still with us

John Thompson • Dec 16, 2018 at 11:00 AM

Johnson City started out as a railroad town.

In fact, it was first known as Johnson’s Depot after Henry Johnson completed the city’s first station in 1856. It was just one of hundreds of towns that grew up around a railroad depot in the second half of the 19th century.

But Johnson City would be different from most of these fledgling towns because it didn’t remain tied to just one railroad. It would quickly have the services of three railroads going in different directions. Each railroad built its own depot in the city, all within easy walking distance from each other in downtown Johnson City.

These stations could be considered key parts of Johnson City’s first industrial and commercial growth. Two of those historic landmarks are still with us today; But the station that briefly lent its name to the city is no more. Johnson’s Depot was built on the East Tennessee and Virginia rail line.

But Johnson City was soon to have a more prestigious position in the booming railroad industry. The city served as the corporate headquarters for the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, completed in 1882.

That railroad’s primary interests being to transport iron ore from the Cranberry Mine in Western North Carolina to Johnson City, giving rise to the establishment of the Carnegie Iron Company. The company completed a blast furnace in 1890.

So, while the ET&WNC may have been the smallest of the railroads in Johnson City, it had a large impact on the city’s early industrial development. Its station still exists and is now the home of Yee-Haw Brewing Company.

Johnson City was soon to become the headquarters of the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad, established to transport another Appalachian mineral, coal, to industrial plants.

Instead of the east-west orientation of the ET&WNC, this more ambitious rail line was to have a northwest to southeast orientation and outlets at both the Ohio River and the Atlantic. It would later evolve into the Clinchfield Railroad.

The Clinchfield’s Johnson City station was just across the street from the ET&WNC station, making it an easy transfer for passengers. That station is still standing and previously housed a Tupelo Honey restaurant.

The city’s original rail line would go through several changes of ownership before becoming part of the Southern Railway. That railing would share the depot with ET&WNC until 1912, when it would open its new and bigger depot a few blocks away. Still, all three of the railroad depots were in close proximity of each other.

The depot serving the Southern was the youngest and also the grandest, befitting of the rapid rise of the Southern Railway. It was the only depot to be built in the heart of the downtown district. It had a large spacious waiting room for its white passengers, and a separate but much smaller waiting room for its black passengers.

Several Johnson City business got their start in the terminal. One was Zimmerman’s News, which offered newspapers from many of the nation’s major cities. These were very current editions because they had been shipped by train on a daily basis. The Railroad Express Agency was also located in the Southern depot.

While it may have been the grandest, the Southern was the only one of the three downtown depots that did not survive. It was leveled to make room for the downtown parking garage.

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