Then and Now: The helpful neighbors, Johnson City and Elizabethton

John Thompson • Dec 2, 2019 at 10:13 AM

ELIZABETHTON — On the morning of every workday, there is a long line of cars leaving Carter County. Their drivers are on the way to jobs in Washington and Sullivan and even Greene counties.

Some of the drivers look at the remnants of the Bemberg Rayon factory as they drive by and remember when Elizabethton used to attract thousands of workers to it, instead of the daily migration of thousands of Carter Countians to other work sites.

Many of the commuters don’t like the turn of events, which makes them reverse the route taken by so many textile workers in the 20th century. Some may even see the modern emphasis on regionalism as reinforcing the trend of Elizabethton becoming a bedroom community for people who work in Johnson City and Kingsport.

But the fact is that regionalism has historically been a part of the area’s work patterns, In fact, Johnson City leaders encouraged the German businessmen to locate their Bemberg factory along the banks of the Watauga River just west of Elizabethton.

The Johnson City Chamber of Commerce, under J.W. Ring, and the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce, under Edwin C. Alexander, worked together to convince the German industrialists that Watauga River would answer their need for large amounts of clean water. The two chambers even made a joint press conference to announce in August 1925 that a $17 million rayon plant was going to be built immediately.

Construction began on the plant less than a month later. Shortly after that factory was completed, a second rayon plant, American Glanzstoff was built just to the west of the Bemberg plant.

Between the two of them, the plants would hire more than 4,000 workers when the demand for rayon was booming. Charles Von Cannon, a current member of the Carter County Commission, worked for Bemberg as a young man.

Von Canon said there was only one connection between Elizabethton and Johnson City when the plants were first built. That connection is now the Milligan Highway. He said as the main transportation route for plant workers coming to work from the west, the single road was very crowded.

Von Cannon said that was the reason a new highway was built from the front door of the factories to Main Street in Johnson City. The new highway was named the Glanzstoff Highway.

So, it can be seen that from its start, the rayon factories helped to bring together Carte and Washington counties.

But that coming together was already 150 years old. When the gathering of the Overmountain Men occurred n 1780, the men from the Nolichucky Settlements joined with the men from the Watauga Settlements.

The man who played one of the biggest roles in bringing together the two communities was Thomas Matson, a civil engineer who would serve as mayor of Johnson City. He also headed the effort to build two of the most iconic structures in Carter County: the Covered Bridge and the Tweetsie Railroad.

Matson led the effort to cut a railroad trough the rugged terrain from Johnson City to the Cranberry iron ore mine, just across the state line in North Carolina.

Besides bringing iron ore to Johnson City, the rail line also made it much easier for people living in Roan Mountain to get to Elizabethton, a one-way trip which had teaken the Overmountain Men an entire day.

Builders like Matson and the German industrialists have helped bring the mountainous region together. That regionalism has made it possible for a man olive in Roan Mountain and work in Kingsport. The people of the region are closer together than they have ever been.