Located in the mountainous northeast corner of Tennessee, Johnson City is the seventh largest city in the state, with a population of over 57,000 (1998), and is one of the regional Tri-Cities that includes Kingsport and Bristol. Johnson City has its roots in the building of the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, which, after being chartered in 1849, began development of its line from Bristol to Knoxville in the early 1850s. In anticipation of the route, Henry Johnson built a store, depot, and post office in 1854 at the junction of the proposed railroad line and the existing stage road. Prior to the Civil War the emerging village became known as Johnson's Tank because trains took on water for their steam engines at the site; when trains began stopping to load and unload passengers and freight, the name became Johnson's Depot. During the Civil War the town took on the name Haynesville in honor of Confederate Senator Landon Carter Haynes, despite the fact that most East Tennesseans supported the Union army.
After the Confederate defeat the town name reverted to Johnson's Depot, and life in the area returned to peacetime pursuits. In 1868 a private academy named Science Hill Male and Female Institute opened; it is now Science Hill High School, a comprehensive high school rated a National School of Excellence. On December 1, 1869, the town received a state charter and the name Johnson City; Henry Johnson was its first mayor. African Americans in Johnson City established their initial community institutions in the late 1860s and 1870s, including the St. Paul AME Zion Church and the Thankful Baptist Church. Both historic church buildings were listed on the National Register in 2001.
For most of the remainder of the century, Johnson City was a boomtown where businesses and industry flourished and the population steadily increased. The completion of the railroad line into North Carolina and the anticipation of another line from Chicago to Charleston, South Carolina, promised to make the city an iron and steel manufacturing hub. When the proposed railroad failed and the nation's economy collapsed in the Panic of 1893, Johnson City's fortunes also declined for several years.
Shortly after the turn of the century, significant railroad traffic returned when the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway was created, extending rail lines for nearly three hundred miles. Johnson City soon emerged as a regional retail and wholesale distribution center that attracted other enterprises. The National Home for Volunteer Soldiers, now the Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home, opened in 1903. In 1911 the East Tennessee Normal School, now East Tennessee State University, was established. Construction of the Memphis-to-Bristol Highway opened the city to further industrial and tourism development. In the 1920s Johnson City became a diversified community that boasted a growing number of banks, a new public library, a major hotel, theaters, phone service, and the Appalachian School of Nursing; by 1930 it was the fifth largest city in the state.
The depression and World War II produced profound changes. The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration built new facilities in the area, including the McKellar Tri-City airport, now Tri-Cities Regional Airport. The establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority brought dams, recreational lakes, and cheap electricity to the region. The city began an era of civic leadership development under a new charter authorizing a council-manager form of government (under which the city still operates).
From the 1950s to the present, Johnson City has developed as an industrial center, a retail and entertainment hub, and a burgeoning health care and educational center for the Tri-Cities and surrounding mountain area. East Tennessee State University, the largest institution of higher education serving the region, added a medical school in 1974, emphasizing primary and rural health care with medical outreach programs to surrounding communities. The medical school, the Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and the growing number of specialty hospitals in Johnson City have led to plans for a biomedical-clinical research and industry corridor (the “Med-Tech” corridor) to be developed for the twenty-first century. The growth of the university, health care, business, and industry have led to a vision of the city's future that includes a continuing education center, a new, technologically sophisticated public library, and a proposed cultural district.