Managing director of the East Tennessee Land Company, Walter C. Harriman was born in New Hampshire, the second of the three children of Walter and Almire Harriman. During the Civil War, Colonel (later General) Walter Harriman led his Eleventh New Hampshire Regiment out of Cincinnati and across the Cumberland Plateau to join General Ambrose Burnside's army in Knoxville. The colonel had no horse and walked with his men through the mountainous countryside of southern Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. During this arduous twenty-day journey Harriman and his regiment camped for several days on the Emory River near the future site of Harriman. General Harriman did not visit Tennessee after the war and returned to New Hampshire to serve two terms as governor of the state.
Walter C. Harriman served as an orderly to his father during the Civil War, but was not with him during the Tennessee campaign. After the war, the younger Harriman became a journalist and the editor of a county newspaper in New Hampshire. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1876. He practiced law in Portsmouth, Exeter, and Boston and served as solicitor for Rockingham County, New Hampshire, for five years. He was twice elected to Congress from New Hampshire.
In 1878 Harriman married Mabel A. Perkins; they had two children. Shortly after his marriage, his health began to weaken, and the family moved to Tennessee in 1881. In 1889 he joined the East Tennessee Land Company venture in Roane County. Frederick Gates and other company directors wanted to create a model industrial city based on the ideals of prohibition. Harriman moved his family to the new city and became managing director of the company until 1891.
The directors of the company considered the name “Fiskville” for their town, to honor General Clinton B. Fisk, nominal president of the company. They changed their minds, however, after a conversation with an elderly man who fondly remembered Colonel Harriman and recalled the colonel saying that there should be a town near the site. On the basis of this memory, the directors decided to name the town “Harriman.”
Walter C. Harriman built a large house in the new town and acted as one of the moving spirits of the community. He was treasurer of the S. K. Paige Lumber and Manufacturing Company and from 1890 until 1898 served as the first president of the First National Bank of Harriman.