A History of Johnson City
Johnson City is “sure special,” as anyone from here will tell you. And though you may have never heard of Johnson City before, its history is just as interesting and exciting as that of any major city in the South. So how did Johnson City come to be, and how did it become the terrific place it is today?
Our story started with Henry Johnson, a man described in an early newspaper report as a “staunch pioneer of commerce and industry.” Following the same trail blazed by the legendary pathfinder Daniel Boone a century before, Johnson came into East Tennessee by way of the Allegheny Mountains in 1856 and set up a depot near the junction of three newly built railroad lines, with a general store and a hotel to service travelers passing through the area. Before long, the little rest stop grew into a town, and soon after Johnson was elected the town’s first mayor in 1870, the area known as “Johnson’s Depot” was officially incorporated as Johnson City.
By 1901, Johnson City had only 5,000 inhabitants, but its population (and its property values) more than doubled over the next three years as our VA hospital was built. At that time, the original National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers had already been built and eight additional branches had been established in various parts of the country. Having done this, the federal government declared it would not pay for the construction of any more Soldiers’ Homes, deciding instead to leave the funding of future institutions up to each individual state. By reminding the Board of Governors that Tennessee had supplied more than 30,000 volunteers to the Union Army during the Civil War—more than all the other Southern states combined—Tennessee Congressman Walter P. Brownlow went to bat for our region’s veterans and convinced Congress to finance one additional branch for Johnson City.
But the heroes of our story have not always been noble men. During the Prohibition era in the 1920s and ‘30s, Johnson City earned the nickname “Little Chicago” because of its connection to bootlegging operations throughout the Appalachian Mountains. The notorious gangster Al Capone himself was rumored to use Johnson City as a distribution center for illegal alcohol, primarily moonshine, which was produced in distilleries hidden in the mountains. A downtown nightclub that shares his name pays homage to this part of the city’s heritage, as does our yearly Little Chicago Music & Arts Festival.
It was a different time then, and we don’t feel shame about it now. Besides, Johnson City didn’t just produce moonshine; it also produced some downright delicious (and perfectly legal) soft drinks. The original formula for Mountain Dew was invented in Knoxville in 1940 by brothers Barney and Ally Hartman, but the popular beverage was bottled and distributed commercially for the first time by the Tri-Cities Beverage Corporation, located right here in Johnson City. You can find the TCBC’s other well-known signature concoction, the vitamin-enriched soft drink Dr. Enuf, at any local grocery or convenience store.
Those are just the highlights of our long and fascinating history. For a nearly comprehensive look at Johnson City’s colorful past, visit the Johnson’s Depot page at
The City of Johnson City celebrates their 150th year of incorporation in 2019. Committee members are hard at work to schedule an event each month to celebrate this milestone. We’re still adding exciting new chapters to our city’s history, and we’re always looking for new characters. We can’t wait for you to join us and be a part of Johnson City’s future!