January 2011

An advertisement from a 1930 Johnson City Chronicle and Staff News stated, “If it takes heat to do it, you can always do it cheaper with gas.”

The business paying for that ad was the Washington County Gas Company, which began operation in 1914 in Johnson City. It ushered in the first gas to the city, which then was manufactured from coal. The firm constructed a coal-gas manufacturing plant along the south end of Tennessee Street near Walnut adjacent to the Southern Railway tracks.

A 1917 Johnson City directory shows the business office located at 240 E. Main (future site of the Nettie Lee Ladies Shop). Initially, service was available only to Johnson City residents, but a growing demand for gas prompted management to enlarge the plant in 1922, doubling capacity and allowing gas lines to be extended to serve nearby Elizabethton. The growth of the company resulted in the company changing its name to Watauga Valley Gas Company.

By 1923, the office was relocated just up the street to 329 E. Main where it shared the location with the National Life and Accident Insurance Co., Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and National Mortgage Co. It was sandwiched between the Wofford Building on the west and the businesses of Security Investment Co. and G.W. Toncray and R.P. Eaton (notary publics) on the east. The location would later become the site of the Home Federal Savings and Loan Association. In 1928, the general manager of the operation was E.J. Wagner.

During 1946, there was a shift in technology. The manufacture of gas from coal was discontinued and replaced with gas made from liquefied petroleum (propane). The company’s new facility had an output of one million cubic feet a day, which more than doubled the capacity of the discontinued coal-gas facility.

One year later, the business was sporting a new name – the Watauga Valley Gas Co. located at 331 E. Main. Three years later, the address was shown to be at 334 E. Main. The officers were H.W. Gee, president; T.F. Dooley, secretary/treasurer; and L.L. “Skinny” Hyder, salesman. The new business logo was “Gas Has Got It.”

Beginning in the 1940s and continuing into the early 1959s, officials of the local gas company and another firm, the East Tennessee Natural Gas Company (ETNGC), worked diligently with the Federal Power Commission to bring natural gas into East Tennessee. After several long frustrating delays, the FPC granted a certificate in November 1952 to ETNGC for construction of a 100-mile pipeline from Knoxville to Bristol.

Work began on the project in August 1953, the same month the board of directors of the gas company adopted a new name, the Volunteer National Gas Company, which was indicative of the expanded territory to which service was to be rendered. The arrival of natural gas into the Tri-Cities area was a welcomed and significant event. A ceremony was held on January 16, 1954 at Tri-Cities Airport with Senator Albert Gore, Sr. lighting the long-awaited flame. In attendance were more than 200 area leaders.

With the availability of natural gas in the surrounding area, the company increased sales by more than 300% and added 500 additional customers during 1954. By 1976, the company had 8,000 customers in Johnson City, Elizabethton, Kingsport and Greeneville.

From its humble beginnings in 1914, gas became a true success story. 

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It was bound to happen – the first automobile wreck in Johnson City. According to Dorothy Hamill, former writer for the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, the incident occurred in 1913 and drew a crowd of curious onlookers much like a collision produces today.

Car accidents were an infrequent happening back then because there weren’t that many automobiles motoring along city streets. Instead the primary means of conveyance were an electrically powered trolley system and horse-drawn carriages and wagons.

Fortunately, a photographer who arrived at the scene of the wreck snapped a picture of the overturned vehicle and had some photograph postcards made from it. Picture postcard service was available to the public allowing residents to send messages on a postcard with a personal photo on the front of it. Hamill interviewed Walter R. Allison who lived at 1105 Grover Street, a brother of the car’s owner. He was certain that this was the first wreck in Johnson City. He originally possessed one of the photographs, but later lost it.

Walter, who retired in 1954 after 50 years with the ET&WNC railroad, related the particulars that led up to the mishap. He was one of four brothers who were railroaders and the only one surviving at the time of Hamill’s interview. Francis was a master mechanic and superintendent of ET&WNC; Arthur was an engineer who ran the first passenger train through this area; and Ernest Jr., the youngest of the siblings, was a fireman.

Ernest acquired one of the first automobiles in Johnson City. He was working out west on the Texas and Pacific Railroad when the engine he was firing hit a damaged section on the tracks and flipped on its side, leaving him with several broken ribs. Walter said his brother was young and wanted to get rich quick so he sued the railroad to compensate him for his injuries.

      After the court awarded him $4,500, he returned to Johnson City and purchased a Marathon automobile for about $1500. Marathon Motor Works of Nashville, Tennessee, known for its quality and durability from 1907 to 1914, manufactured the vehicle.  

The impressive looking black automobile was open on the sides, had 36-inch wooden spoke wheels; a battery located on the running board; and a fabric top, which folded back like the covering of a buggy. Side curtains were held in large pockets beside the door. Whenever it rained, the driver had to fasten the curtains to keep his passengers dry. The auto held up to seven passengers because of two side seats in the rear that could be pulled out for extra riders.

The impressive looking Marathon afforded Ernest a moneymaking opportunity – a taxi service that operated from Johnson City to and fromElizabethton and Jonesboro (Jonesborough). At that time, these were about the only fully passable roads in the area. Ernest ran a good business since he had the only taxi service in town. He charged $3 for a trip to or from either neighboring town.

On one eventful December day, Ernest was driving several passengers to Elizabethton. The road then went through Milligan College back of the present highway. Allison was rolling along at 25-mph, which was as fast as his vehicle would travel. Suddenly, he skidded in some loose gravel close to an embankment, lost control and overturned. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt.

After the mishap, Ernest decided to abandon his business venture and return to the western portion of the country where he had previously resided. He remained there until his death. 

If anyone has a photograph of the overturned car, please send a copy of it to Brad Jolly at the Johnson City Press for inclusion on the History/Heritage page. Hopefully, one still exists. 

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Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, once practiced law in Jonesborough and Greeneville, residing there for several months in the Christopher Taylor log cabin. He became a polarizing and dominating political figure in the 1820s and 30s who ultimately helped shape the modern Democratic Party.

In January 1915, Andrew Jackson Day was celebrated in Nashville, Tennessee. The Andrew Jackson Memorial Association and the Ladies' Hermitage Association (LHA) were the primary movers in organizing a massive downtown celebration.

One significant portion of the event was to unveil a newly constructed statue as a memorial to “Old Hickory,” paid for from a vast network of local agencies and public contributions. The LHA was praised for their efforts in saving and preserving Jackson’s home place, thereby establishing a model for how preservation of antiquities should be handled.

The day began with a festive parade that organized at Broadway and Eighth Avenue at 10 a.m., moved through the principal streets of the downtown business district to Capitol Boulevard and on to the State Capitol. In the procession were representatives of military, municipal, and patriotic organizations. Along the west side of the Capitol Boulevard behind many bales of cotton, two companies of Confederate soldiers engaged in a mock battle using personnel from two companies of the Tennessee National Guard.

At the conclusion of the reminiscence of the Battle of New Orleans, several young ladies, acting on behalf of the LHA, released several white doves as a token of peace. Upon the Capitol Boulevard, a great throng of spectators heard public addresses from Governor Ben W. Hooper, Major E. B. Stehlman, and Judge S. F. Wilson.

The most impressive ceremonies of the morning were held on the east side of the Capitol under the auspices of the LHA. Here the equestrian statue of General Jackson was decked with wreaths of flowers that had been placed upon it with appropriate remarks by ladies representing the various patriotic organizations. Judge Wilson, Regent of the LHA, delivered the principal address. On the same afternoon, a hickory tree was planted at Centennial Park in Jackson’s honor.

That evening, about 200 citizens attended a banquet at the historic Maxwell House. The toastmaster, Mr. Robert L. Burch, introduced seven prominent speakers. Later, a dazzling ball was held at the Hermitage Hotel.

The next morning, the Daughters and many invited guests made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Andrew Jackson at the Hermitage. The burial place had previously been appropriately decorated. Several speakers were introduced. One lady gave an interesting personal reminiscence of General Jackson and read an affectionate and treasured letter written by the general to her mother. Another person told some incidents of the attack on Baltimore by the British and the defense of Fort McHenry. The originator of the pilgrimage spoke to a group of school children from Old Hickory School, reminding them of Jackson's work in the Indian warfare of the southern country.

Finally, two wreaths of evergreen gathered from the old church that had been built in 1823 by Jackson for his wife, were placed upon the graves of General and Mrs. Jackson. After these exercises and a luncheon, the final speaker presented a paper dealing with Jackson’s storied career.

This brought to a close a day enjoyed to the fullest by a deeply interested and appreciative audience. It was a fitting tribute to a fitting man – Andrew Jackson. 

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I acquired a May 24, 1940 edition of “Junior High News – Graduation Edition,” a 12-page student publication chocked full of names and facts. The item is in the Pat Watson (once owned Pat’s Trading Post) collection of the Archives of Appalachia. 

The newspaper staff consisted of Anna Marie Irish, Editor-in-Chief; Mary Ellen Gregg, News Editor; Dorothy Lynn Brown, Club Editor; Herschal Ottinger, Art Editor; Hoyle Chancellor, Boys Sports Editor; Marjorie Brumit, Girls Sports Editor; and Frank Martin, Business Manager.

The headline announced that 225 students were graduating from Junior High School, as being the largest class in the history of the school since its beginning in 1922. The periodical further stated that the second largest class had graduated the previous year when 200 students received diplomas. The commencement theme was titled, “And They Shall Read,” depicting 500 years of printing and its effect on history.

The annual Honor Banquet was scheduled for the following Friday evening at 6 o’clock in the school cafeteria for 250 specially invited guests. The invitees were students earning letters from the school, members of the Junior High P.T.A and faculty.

A popular feature of the paper was the joke page depicting funny stories that fictitiously occurred between students and teachers. For instance: A teacher by the name of Helen Jones, after being annoyed by a student’s constant interruptions during class said, “Frank Martin, are you teaching this class?” His response was “No madam.” The teacher followed with “Then don’t talk like an idiot.”

The graduating class presented a lively comedy, “Apple Blossom Time,” on Friday evening, May 3 at 7:45 with a capacity crowd filling the massive 1000-seat auditorium. A calendar showed the final events for May: “9A Play, May 3; Letter Awards in Assembly, May 23; Honor Banquet, May 24, 6 p.m.; Class Work Closes, May 27, 11:30 a.m.; Reorganization for Fall Term and Receive Report Cards, May 28, 8:30 a.m.; and Promotion Exercises with Exhibits from Various Departments, May 28, 2:30 p.m. The calendar indicated that school would begin again on Sept. 3, 1940.

One section in the paper was similar to superlatives found in high school annuals, each one containing a different letter of the alphabet: Athletic, Baritone, Cute, Dumb, Earnest, Flirt, Gardner, Hopeful, Inquisitive, Jealous, Kissable, Little, Meddler, Nimble, Odd, Pest, Quiet, Restless, Saucy, Tumbler, Useless, Vacant, Whimsical, X (indicating unknown quantity), Yawners and Zestful. One or two students were listed under each category.

Miss Mary Nelle Givens, 9A student, won the title of Milk Queen in a contest sponsored by the Johnson City Milk Producers Association by defeating a representative from Science Hill. The margin was 3000 votes. The school was awarded $50 as first prize, the money being used to purchase new library books. Mary Nelle won $10 and a free pass to the Majestic Theatre for a month. She was also chosen as the school’s most popular girl in a run-off contest with three other contestants – Betty Asquith, Anna Marie Irish and Rosemary Murray.

The publication concluded with several students commenting on the teachers they would soon be leaving behind at Junior High and beginning their daily trek up 88 steps to Science Hill High School. The list included Mr. McCorkle, Miss Bradshaw, Miss Candler, Miss Archer, Miss Hart, Miss Taylor, Miss Whitehead, Mr. Oakes, Mr. Boyd, Mr. Hall, Mr. Dyer, Miss Jeffries, Miss Mathes, Miss Barnes, Miss Van Gorder and Mr. Sherrod.   

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A 1928 Johnson City Chronicle headline proclaimed, “Plan to Spend $8 Million on Route 1, Tennessee’s “Broadway of America.” The article was referring to the proposed 538-mile Memphis-to-Bristol Highway.

Local businessmen initially formed the highway association in 1911 to promote the state’s development. Soon after its creation in 1915, the Highway Department designated the corridor as State Route 1 and made it the top road priority. In 1926, the state selected about two-thirds of Route 1 as U.S. 70, the major east-west corridor in the region.

By the late 1920s, the local artery became part of the 2,385-mile “Broadway of America” highway system that ran from California to New York. Route 1 remained the main east-west route through the Volunteer State until the completion of Interstate 40 in the late 1960s. The Tennessee portion of it was sometimes referred to as “The Broadway of Tennessee.”

The intent of the work was to make permanent road improvements to the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway. The cost estimate came from Highway Department figures. Construction and paving was already underway when the news hit the newspaper.

The new intra-highway afforded a wide diversity of people to travel across the state, thus helping unify the three main divisions of the state: East, Middle and West Tennessee. A movement to promote good roads arose in the 1890s from a wide variety of concerned citizens consisting of railroad owners, farm alliances, businessmen, vacation travelers and even bicyclists. Such efforts received widespread approval from the public. Timing was good for the new highway. The arrival of mass-produced motorized vehicles at the turn of the 19th century offered competition to railroads and steamboats, thereby creating the need for good thoroughfares. 

A Memphis-to-Bristol meeting being held in Nashville brought encouraging news from Highway Commissioner Harry S. Berry. Not only had a schedule been developed for covering roads with state-of-the-art paving, the department displayed a commitment to pave the entire stretch of highway between Memphis and Bristol.

The committee realized that the need for better intrastate roads was likewise critical to the overall efforts of other states working on the “Broadway of America.” A status report presented at the meeting revealed that the paving of Route 1 included 191 miles of cement concrete highway, 42 miles of rock asphalt highway, 10 miles of bituminous concrete and 177 miles of bituminous macadam. All were said to be high-type of pavement. The report further showed that, in addition, about 100 miles were of low-type pavement (surface treated), 12 miles graveled and 30 miles graded. This meant that 75% of Route 1 had high type pavement, a far cry from today’s interstate highways.

The building of the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway encouraged the undertaking of other state road-building projects and further persuaded Virginia and Mississippi to extend their highways.

An examination of my column photo appears to be that of a country road instead of a highway; however, the narrow barely-paved highway was a major improvement over other roadways of that era. In 1911, automobiles were just starting to give competition to passenger trains as the main source of intra-city travel.  

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In 1958, a Junior High School classmate and I went to Tri-Cities Airport to research for a project about the operation of the facility as part of an assignment for Ms. Viola Mathes’ 9thgrade Civics class. We put together a poster that was later displayed during a PTA meeting.

I was reminded of this event when I read the title of an article in the January 9, 1934 Johnson City Staff-News: “Engineers Busy Making Final Surveys of 125-Acre Airport.” The clipping stated that the dream of East Tennesseans had long been to possess an airport that adequately served the Tri-Cities area. That vision became a reality when engineers began surveying and moving in machinery to accelerate the building project on a chosen site located about halfway between Johnson City and Kingsport, just a short distance from a newly paved thoroughfare between the two cities.

The article stated that all but 10 acres of the desired land were in Washington County near the Sullivan County line. A committee chosen to purchase the property found all the landowners willing to sell their land at a reasonable price except for one family who held out for a higher price. Timing was favorable for the construction of a regional airport. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the CWA (Civil Works Administration) was approved on November 8, 1933 with a goal to create jobs for millions of unemployed workers. It was intended to run parallel with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps).

The CWA created construction jobs, aimed largely at improving or constructing buildings and bridges. However, CWA’s window of opportunity lasted only four and a half months, ending abruptly on March 31, 1934 after racking up a 200 million dollar monthly tab.

The newspaper article stated that engineers were making final surveys for the airport and workers would be selected equally from the four cooperating counties: Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi and Greene. This was in exchange for each party agreeing to pool its share of CWA funds to secure the airfield. A landing field was seen as a significant benefit for people residing across a wide area. The East Tennessee field was to be the largest in Tennessee with two runways 3,200 feet long and three others almost that length. One impressive fact about the new airport was that the largest planes built at that time would be able to land there regardless of the direction of the wind.

Mr. R.S. Boutelle, former Tennessee Director of Aeronautics who was in charge of 11 southern states in the building of airports with CWA money, telephoned officials and ordered work to get under way immediately. Local authorities, eager to comply with the director’s instruction, expedited every phase of the preliminary work.

The newspaper article further noted that after the airfield was completed, it would represent an expenditure of more than $200,000. It was believed that a sufficient amount of money from the CWA fund would be available for building necessary hangers, beacons along the runways and other lighting facilities.

The article concluded by bragging on Johnson City’s and Kingsport’s leaders for their cooperative efforts in securing the airport. Those from JC were Harry D. Gump, M.T. McArthur and J.W. Cummins. A.D. Brockman, Robert E. Peters, J. Fred Johnson and E.W. Palmer represented KP. Efforts from those humble beginnings in 1934 to establish local air travel can be seen today by visiting the modern and expansive Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

Does anyone recall the name or have a photo of the friendly little canine that for years hung around the runway side of the terminal and became a hit with passengers?  

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