The first railroad to come through Eastern Tennessee was the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad which was chartered in 1849. Many families along the proposed route bought the initial stock in the railroad, pledging their personal fortunes as collateral. Construction began in 1855 with one section of the railway beginning in Bristol and another in Knoxville. Key elected officials and political leaders such as Tennessee Governor Andrew Johnson (a future U.S. President) and Landon Carter Haynes (a future Confederate Senator) were strong supporters of railway development in Northeast Tennessee.
Realizing the potential of the new railroad, Henry
Johnson bought property at the junction of the proposed rail line and
the stagecoach route between Elizabethton and Jonesborough in 1854. He
built a store, depot, post office, and residence all on his half-acre
lot purchased from Abram Jobe for $50. Trains stopped to take on water
for steam engines and the village became known as "Johnson's Tank"
and later as "Johnson's Depot." A few other residences and stores
were built prior to the Civil War.
"Johnson's Depot" was an appropriate name for the small village. Henry Johnson built the small railway depot, freight station, and post office at his own expense. His place of business also served as a hotel, restaurant, and store and Henry is reported to have welcomed travelers at any time including those who were without the means to pay for lodging.
HOWEVER .... without the monumental efforts of other leaders and citizens of Washington County, Henry would have had no reason to build his modest depot. The story of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad is one of incredible tenacity and aggressive efforts to pursue railway development, a relatively new form of transportation for a region sorely lacking in river facilities and waterways.
When researching the origin of the East Tennessee railroads it is apparent that Johnson City owes a tremendous historical debt to its neighbor 7 miles to the west - the Town of Jonesborough. Jonesborough is Tennessee's oldest municipality and exerted powerful influence throughout the nineteenth century with the presence of Andrew Jackson, William Gannaway (Parson) Brownlow, and finally the legendary Congressman Walter P. Brownlow. Jonesborough leaders were instrumental in selecting the final path of the East Tennessee, Virginia Railway taking the route through their Town and continuing on through the future site of Johnson Depot.
A man overlooked in many history books who played the greatest role in bringing the railroads to Washington County was Dr. Samuel Blair Cunningham. Samuel Blair Cunningham was born at Limestone, Tennessee on October 8, 1797. He graduated from Washington College and studied medicine under the instruction of Dr. David Nelson, who was also a Presbyterian minister. Cunningham was a leader in organizing local support for the railway between Knoxville and Bristol and recruiting private stockholders to purchase stock and frame the charter for the company. During the early 1850s when the charter of the new railway was in jeopardy, Cunningham arranged for 30 men to subscribe to another $500,000 of stock over and above what had already been pledged. This act saved the charter of the railway and the Washington County subscribers included: Dr. Cunningham, Judge Seth J. Lucky, Thomas A. R. Nelson, Sr., John Blair, Dr. Wm. Sevier, G. W. Telford, G. W. Nelson and Adam Broyles.
Dr. Cunningham lifted the first shovel of dirt and drove the last spike when the road was completed. He gave up a profitable medical practice and took the presidency of the East Tennessee & Virginia railroad at a very small salary, devoting his efforts to the construction and management of the road. He was constantly at work for over seven years before he saw his dream of a railroad through the valley of East Tennessee completed in 1858. Rails were connected all the way from Chattanooga to Lynchburg when Cunningham drove the last spike and he continued as President of the railroad until 1861.
On September 8, 1868, Dr. Samuel B. Cunningham died and the following tribute was made by stockholders of his beloved railway:
Captain Ross Smith, a Jonesborough native authored a fascinating autobiography titled "Reminisces of an Old Timer" which gives a first hand account of the development of the E, T, & V Railway and the difficult work entailed by early railway workers (including many fatal accidents). Smith's stories include the transporting of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis upon his release from federal custody en route to his home in Mississippi. Davis dined at a hotel in Jonesborough on this trip.
Captain Smith mentions several families from the farming
area that later became Johnson City who were interested in development
of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railway. Smith records that L. C. Hoss,
of Johnson City was the second superintendent of the railway and that
the Johnsons, Faws, Ranges, Jobes, Wheelers, and Whites were all
strong supporters of the railroad.
On July 1, 1894, the East Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia Railroad merged with the Richmond and Danville Railroad to form the new Southern Railway. Southern later acquired many more companies and within a decade was one of the most extensive railway systems in the nation. Of the three railway companies serving Johnson City, the Southern was the largest and offered more connections. At full build out the Southern, Clinchfield, and ET&WNC lines brought a combined 20 passenger trains daily into Johnson City. As the railroads brought prosperity to East Tennessee, the areas largest cities - Johnson City and Bristol - became rivals of sorts for new industry and business from the Southern Railway and other smaller railway lines.
Southern Railway suspended passenger service to Johnson
City in 1970 and the brick
depot originally constructed in 1912 was dismantled in 1973. The main
line of the Norfolk Southern
Railway presently operates along the original route of the East Tennessee
and Virginia Railroad through downtown Johnson City and westward to Jonesborough