The Railroads

In the 1850s, the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad Company began the construction of a railroad that would connect Knoxville, Tennessee, to Virginia. Henry Johnson bought property on the proposed path of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railway, a promising spot to start a new business. He built a store, a depot, a post office and a house on this small piece of valuable land, which was eventually named Johnson’s Depot.

By establishing a depot, Henry was able to provide a water tank for the trains and lodging for travelers. This was the first railroad depot in the area that served passengers. In 1869, Johnson’s Depot was incorporated by the State of Tennessee as Johnson City, Tennessee. Henry Johnson was the unanimous choice for the city’s first mayor.

A few years later, the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railroad was built, stretching from Johnson City into the mountains of North Carolina. The train was nicknamed “Tweetsie” for it’s loud whistle that echoed through the mountains. This is where the idea for the Tweetsie Trail originated. The Tweetsie Trail is a “rails to-trails” project, providing opportunities for walking, hiking, running, or biking on a relatively flat path in a beautiful, natural setting. Once completed, the 10-mile trail will be the longest rails-to-trails project in Tennessee.

The ET&V and ET&WNC railroads are now part of the Norfolk Southern Railway and run nearly 20,000 miles through the eastern United States, but their history holds a very special place in the heart of Johnson City. We are bringing life back to these abandoned railways and depots by bringing in businesses like Tupelo Honey Cafe and Yee-Haw Brewing Co., which are located in the old depots here in downtown.


Becoming a Boomtown

In the 1880’s, Union Civil War Gen. John T. Wilder started the transformation of Johnson City into a boomtown. He saw the potential this small railroad town had with its natural resources. This, along with the beauty of the area, would provide ample opportunities for growth.

Wilder and other northern capitalists bought thousands of acres of land and began the development process. By 1890, Johnson City’s population had reached 4,000. The Mountain Branch of the Soldiers Home (now known as the Mountain Home VA Medical Center) opened in October 1903. About six years later, Johnson City had three banks, five primary schools, a high school, two newspapers (The Staff and The Comet), a post office, large retail stores and several churches. Some of the public utilities included a first-class electric street car line, first-class hotels, boarding houses and 10 miles of paved sidewalks.

The industrial and agricultural opportunities set a great foundation for Johnson City. It has seen a continuous increase in population over the last century, which now stands at over 65,000 residents.


East Tennessee State University

East Tennessee State University was founded in 1911 as the East Tennessee State Normal School. On the first day, 29 students registered for enrollment. It consisted of the departments of English, history, science, languages, industrial training, agriculture and a training school. The first president of the school was Sidney G. Gilbreath. Sherrod Library is named after the school’s second president, Charles C. Sherrod.

By 1940, the graduating class was up to nearly 70 students. About a decade later, ETSU really began to thrive. The first bookstore opened, fraternities and sororities were founded and the Kingsport center opened.

Today, approximately 15,000 students are enrolled at ETSU. People travel from all around to attend this multifaceted university that offers baccalaureate, graduate and professional programs of study. When asked why they chose ETSU, many students respond that they are attracted to the atmosphere and nature of Johnson City and the beautiful campus. Places like Founders ParkHands On! MuseumRoot Studio School and Nelson Fine Art Center are located in Downtown Johnson City. Several local restaurants, churches, the Johnson City Public Library and other businesses are also here. Another great addition is ETSU’s new football stadium that will hold over 10,000 people and is set to open in 2017!

The “town and gown” aspect of Downtown Johnson City has been beneficial for its growth, increasing the city’s population and keeping it alive.


To read more about the history of Johnson City, click here.