Johnson City, Tennessee in 1893

In 1893, the population of Johnson City, TN was 4200. That was the year the city died. For the next hundred and twenty-plus years, it would be a zombie, a living-dead community craving human flesh to sustain it’s half-life.

Seriously, though, The City took some hard times and kept going. The following is my own understanding of local history as presented by many sources. I would love to discuss it and expand on the info in the comments!

The City had experienced a boom between 1870 and 1890. Iron, mined over the mountain in Cranberry, North Carolina was carried to town by the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina “Tweetsie” Railroad, making the city the future “Pittsburg of the South!” With THREE through it, the city was a major stop over point for rail travelers, and provided big city services for the surrounding rural towns.

Can you imagine the future imagined in 1890 by locals? 20 years of prosperity thanks to the iron refining and the trains, wages were up and growth was incredible! Do you think that they knew how bad it was going to be in 1893? Do you think they guessed that the prosperity would go bust so quickly?

Street cars, telephone exchanges, electric lights, and a grand public school were built! In particular, the aquafer that was built around Brush Creek stabilized the land that the town had been built on, even if it didn’t change the fact it had been built on a flood plain. When the Sevier Hotel was built on top of a sprint, a pump was built into the basement to deal with the underground spring for the next century.

It all ended in 1893 because of a run on the banks.

With prosperity behind them, the city voted to raise $100,000 as investment to bring the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad through town, making the city the hub of rail travel connecting all four points of the compass! At least that was the plan. It surely seemed like a sure thing.

What the locals of Johnson City probably didn’t realize at the time was that the railroads were over building. Easy credit from international banks made it easy to build more and more, but at the same time, the expense was far exceeding the income generated. Maybe the farmers had realized something was up as the prices for their crops began sharply decreasing, Maybe jewelers realized that the recently relaxed laws allowed a boom in silver mining to glut the market and dropped the bottom out of silver prices.

They had to have realized that the price of silver was dragging down other markets. It was so bad that President Cleveland made dissolving the laws allowing the silver glut his first priority, but the damage was already done. In 1893, there was a run on the banks.

The locals probably joined in with the rest of the country and saw that the economy was in bad shape, so they probably ran to the banks to withdraw their money before it was lost to them! Whether they were converting it to gold, gems, or other commodities, the end result for the banks was the same: the banks were running out of capitol, the run fueling the crash, making it more and more likely that the banks could not cover their own obligations.

It was into this climate that Johnson City invested everything it had into the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railroad through The Baker Brothers & Company. The Baker Brothers & Company failed during the crash, going into receivership. Johnson City lost its investment. The “Triple C” railroad would be sold off into sections.

The locals had to be devastated. “At least the city still had its iron processing future ahead of it, “ someone probably said, but it was not to be.

In 1880, Johnson City’s population was 685. Upon the completion of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina railway in 1882 the population boomed to 4200 people. The Cranberry mine was the lifeblood of the city, sending it’s ore through Johnson City and on to processing across the country. Johnson City investors saw an opportunity to process the ore right here, keeping those profits local instead of shipping it off for refining.

It was General John T. Wilder, a Union Civil War General that saw the potential for Johnson City to be a major iron and steel manufacturing center. He realized that Johnson City was ideally located between the mines of North Carolina and the coal fields of West Virginia with a valuable rail crossroad. The City was jubilant, the Cranberry mine would guarantee prosperity!

Based on this assessment, Wilder invested in the Carnegie Land Company and began construction of the Carnegie, later renamed “Cranberry,” Furnace in Johnson City to refine pig iron. 40 years later, The Cranberry Furnace would be one of the City’s lifeline through World War I.

Again, I doubt the citizens realized it at the time, but in 1866, one of the richest iron deposits ever discovered were found in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota. These iron deposits would become the United States’ primary source of iron for over 100 years. It was in 1882 that open pit mining of the iron began in earnest to dominate the market.

The ore extracted from Mesabi contained less impurities than the iron found at the Cranberry mine, making it more desirable. Considering it was much more plentiful, and pure, in 1893 the bottom fell out of the iron market devastating the iron and steel prospects for Johnson City. The completion of the Cranberry furnace would not be possible until 1902.

The iron and steel investors, many English and German, that did not go bankrupt in the Panic of 1893 would simply abandon their properties and withdraw from the town. An entire economy disappeared except for a few that still relied on the meager income now provided by processing the Cranberry mine’s ore to distribute as it had for 30 years. The locals were devastated. Money had little value, however Judge Samuel Cole Williams wrote that the people got along like they always had, trading fruit, vegetables, and livestock for goods and services. He said that though the people were struggling, they always kept in good spirits.

Hardwood processing and furniture manufacturing would be Johnson City’s major industries, relying on the ET&WNC line to deliver the raw materials to keep the economy limping along.

Johnson City was founded by Henry Johnson in 1856 and in 37 years had gone from boom to bust.

Except, the people of Johnson City were tougher than that. The believed in their city enough to stay and tough out the hard times.

In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln established The National Soldiers Home, a military hospital devoted to caring for veterans. The Mountain Home was built as a completely self-contained community inside Johnson City, TN and would be the first of the second wave of Soldiers Homes and the ninth built overall. Construction was complete and the facility opened in 1903 with the original 37 buildings completed in 1910.

Suddenly, Johnson City had a regular influx of military pensioners spending money in town reinvigorating the economy. Locals were hired to work at a steady government job, the community suddenly had an opera house and a zoo despite the tough times. Things had to seem to be fairly stable in the midst of some pretty tough times.

Times changed and Johnson City rebuilt in time to be struck by the Great Depression of 1929, but again survived, rebuilding even more quickly in time to prosper during world war one and two. The Cranberry mine still producing enough profit for the city to also contribute to the growth. A foundry was established to repair train cars, then local restaurants, car dealerships, and businesses catering to the employees of the Model Mill and various local industry found footing.

The city rose from it’s apparent death, never a Pittsburg or Charlotte, but a stable, mid-sized city that took leadership of it’s region.

Today, after decades of neglect, the Downtown that once served as the core of the city is rebounding into a vivacious place where the descendants of those tough citizens that survived the crash of 1893 can live and be proud of. Ruins of the industrial death are scattered around the City, streets named for British families, for Germans, and for various metals are all that remain of the steel and iron refining districts, but if you go out far enough, you can find the ivy covered skeletons of might smoke stacks and industrial buildings that are all that is left of the boom times that made Johnson City what it is and what it has the potential to become.

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7/6/15