George L. Carter, rail and coal magnate and founder of modern Kingsport, shaped the economic transformation of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. Known as the “empire builder of Southwest Virginia,” Carter built the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway and envisioned the modern industrial city of Kingsport.
Born January 10, 1857, in Hillsville, Virginia, Carter was the son of Walter Carter and Lucy Ann Jennings. As a youth, he worked in the Hillsville General Store, but soon found employment at Wythe Lead and Zinc Company in Austinville, Virginia. He and railroad contractor George T. Mills pursued the development and sale of iron ore properties. Carter purchased small mines to provide coke for the Dora furnace at Pulaski, Virginia, where he served as general manager. He also founded the Toms Creek Coal and Coke Company. In 1898 Carter combined all his holdings into the Carter Coal and Iron Company. The following year, he organized the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company, a $10 million corporation headquartered in Bristol.
Carter held iron ore properties from Georgia to Virginia, as well as steel plants and iron ore rolling mills. During this time, he organized the Clinchfield Coal Company from 300,000 acres of coal lands in Dickenson, Russell, and Wise Counties, Virginia. At the height of his holdings, Carter held 9,000 acres of land on the present site of Kingsport and 250,000 acres in Russell and Dickenson Counties in Virginia. The South and Western Railway Company, headquartered in Bristol and later Johnson City, provided access to his properties.
Carter's most enduring legacies were the construction of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway and the creation of modern Kingsport. In order to build his railroad, Carter obtained the financial backing of the powerful New York capitalist Thomas Fortune Ryan, who invested a reported $30 million. The railroad project also benefited from the involvement of John B. Dennis of Blair and Company, New York, who rescued the project and supported the development of Kingsport. In 1908 the northern syndicate rechartered the South and Western Railway Company as the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway. Crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and joining with other lines, the Clinchfield connected Charleston with Cincinnati. The construction of the railroad, a true engineering feat through the rugged terrain, promoted regional industrial development.
As early as 1905, Carter envisioned a modern industrial city at the site of Kingsport. The Johnson City Comet reported that Carter's Unaka Corporation, a land holding company, planned “to boom a town at Kingsport.” In 1906 Carter hired a Philadelphia engineer to inspect the area and draft a street arrangement. A few years later he sold 6,355 acres of land to Kingsport Farms, Incorporated, which was controlled by the New York firm of Blair and Company. The Kingsport Improvement Company, headed by Clinchfield land agent and Carter brother-in-law J. Fred Johnson, was soon chartered to purchase land for the proposed town from Kingsport Farms. John B. Dennis held a controlling interest in both companies providing the financial backing for the new industrial town.
Between 1907 and 1920 Carter lived in Johnson City, where he was instrumental in the creation of a teachers college–now East Tennessee State University–through his donation of the 120-acre site for the construction of the institution. At one point Carter owned the Bristol Herald, now the Bristol Herald-Courier. He also owned the Fort Chiswell estate near Wytheville, which included several thousand acres of land, and maintained homes at Coalwood, West Virginia, and Hillsville, Virginia.
Other related business interests included the Carter Coal and Dock Company, which operated in New York, Boston, Providence, and Bridgeport. Carter maintained offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and Cincinnati, and was living in Washington, D.C., at the time of his death. He is buried in Hillsville, Virginia.
Margaret Ripley Wolfe, Kingsport, Tennessee: A Planned American City (1987)