Johnson City was originally founded as a railroad station in 1856 by Henry Johnson. The city originally called “Johnson Depot” was a major rail hub for the southeast and including three separate railroad lines that crossed in the downtown area. The railroad lines led Henry Johnson to create a depot that served both passenger and freight trains, a water tank, a post office, and boarding for travelers.
In 1869, the town of Johnson Depot was officially incorporated into the State of Tennessee and became formally known as Johnson City, Tennessee. From 1870 until 1890 the town grew swiftly, due in part to the increasing interest in railroads and mining until the nation-wide depression of 1893 caused a financial panic that halted the city’s continued growth. After the panic had subsided, the city became home to the Mountain Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, now known as U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center and National Cemetery. Construction on the VA Medical Center was completed in 1903 and what is now known as East Tennessee State University was established in 1911, ultimately leading the city to grow even more rapidly.
In the 1920’s Johnson City continued to grow and flourish throughout the decade. During prohibition, Johnson City became known for its ties to the bootlegging community. The city was said to have been a main distribution center for the famous Chicago mobster Al Capone, earning itself the nickname of “Little Chicago.” Later in the 20’s, Johnson City, along with the adjacent town of Bristol, also became noted as a source of old-time music. In 1928, Johnson City hosted the famous Columbia Records’ recording sessions that were known as the Johnson City Sessions. These sessions were hosted at the Brading-Marshall Lumber Company’s business office and gave locals the opportunity to audition for a chance at a recording contract with Columbia Records. All of the changes and success of the 1910s and 1920s led Johnson City to continue its growth until it became the 5th largest city in Tennessee by 1930.