Johnson City at 150: Then & Now

Johnson City Press • Dec 1, 2019 at 7:00 AM

Just a block from where Henry Johnson built his general store near Brush Creek in 1856, the town he founded will celebrate its 150th birthday today in King Commons Park.

From 2 to 4 p.m., the city’s Sesquicentennial Commission will host the grand finale of a yearlong celebration of the founder’s legacy. With the public invited, the festivities will include the first lighting of a commissioned art piece installed in the center of the new History Circle and the placement of contents in a sesquicentennial time capsule to be opened in 2069.

Here in 2019, Johnson City encompasses 43.3 square miles in three counties, is home to about 68,000 people, and is a hub for education, medical services and manufacturing. It’s the bustling center of a metropolitan region 500,000 strong.

Born because Johnson had the foresight to buy land where the old stage road was to meet the planned path of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, Johnson City received its first charter from the state of Tennessee on this date in 1869. Johnson fittingly was named its first mayor in 1870.

Though Johnson would only live another four years, everything this town is in 2019 was built from his foresight.

The town 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. The rail confluence made this a logical spot to smelt iron ore hauled along the rails from North Carolina mines and later the gateway for coal transportation.

As a passenger rail hub, Johnson City was a natural choice for the U.S. government to establish the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1901. That complex today is the James H. Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, which continues to serve the health care needs of thousands of former servicemen and women every year.

The railroads brought such entrepreneurs as George L. Carter, father of the Clinchfield, to the region. It was Carter who donated the land for what is now East Tennessee State University. When it opened as a teacher-training school in 1911, the institution was responsible for educating the instructors who would fill East Tennessee’s growing public education system. From normal school to state college to 15,000-student university, ETSU has educated hundreds of thousands of graduates in 108 years.

Having both ETSU and the VAMC was the key to Johnson City’s modern way of life. In the 1960s, this part of Southern Appalachian region was far behind the rest of the country in the availability of medical services. It lacked the primary care physicians, specialists and facilities necessary for a healthy, thriving population.

Local, state and federal officials joined together to create what would become the ETSU James H. Quillen College of Medicine at the VAMC campus — the catalyst for today’s medical services economy.

It’s that evolution Johnson City will celebrate today at King Commons.