Book Excerpt: ‘Images of America: Harriman’

Posted by | April 23, 2014

John BrownPlease welcome guest author John Norris Brown. Brown teaches political science and history at Roane State Community College in Harriman, TN. A graduate of Roane State, the University of Tennessee and Appalachian State University, Brown currently resides in Oak Ridge, TN. His new book, Harriman (Images of America) presents a photographic history of Harriman, a temperance town in the hills of Tennessee. Published by Arcadia Publishing, the book will be available April 28. We’re pleased to present an excerpt of it here:

 

Harriman has a unique history. Incorporated in 1891 as a temperance town in the Appalachians, Harriman was intended to be “an object lesson for thrift, sobriety, intelligence, and exalted moral character, where workers would be uncorrupted by Demon Rum,” as the historical marker explains. The city’s founders envisioned a model city for the world in which Victorian morality could be commercialized for both the betterment of mankind and for business profit. Harriman’s founders believed so strongly in this vision that many of them mortgaged their futures on it.

Harriman’s founders had big dreams: a city of 50,000 people that would someday rival Pittsburgh and Birmingham in ore production. The 300,000 acres owned by the East Tennessee Land Company (the company that purchased and sold the land on which Harriman was built) was rich in coal and ore. The great land sale, held in late February 1890, in which lots were sold off to settlers, was a major success, drawing around 3,000 bidders from at least 12 states. Over the next two years, Harriman saw rapid growth as the population swelled to 719 by the fall of 1890 and to 3,672 by December of the following year.

Harriman cover

The dreams of the founders would turn into a nightmare for many, however, and the Panic of 1893, coupled with the assumption of major debt and reckless speculating, drove the East Tennessee Land Company into bankruptcy. Their dreams shattered, it appeared Harriman might become a total failure. Many of Harriman’s founders returned to their home states disillusioned and broken.

Harriman, like most proposed utopias, failed to fully realize the dreams of its founders. Nevertheless, the city rebounded from the early disasters and experienced growth in the early 20th century. The East Tennessee Land Company’s headquarters was converted to the American University, then the Mooney School, and finally city hall (a role it retains), known locally as the Temperance Building.

Unfortunately, in 1929, two other disasters struck: a major flood of the Emory River and the stock market crash. The flood washed away much of Harriman’s industry, killed 20 people, and left as many as 200 homeless. Many of the businesses never resumed operation in the city. The economic impact was staggering and was further compounded by the Great Crash of 1929 and the arrival of the Great Depression. The 1930s were lean times for the city, just as they were for the rest of the country.

By the 1940s, the city appeared on the road to recovery. The 1940 Semi-Centennial celebration was a time of renewed optimism. World War II, though certainly a tragedy for the world, brought economic growth to Harriman, as the Manhattan Project in nearby Oak Ridge led to a flood of new people into the city.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Harriman was doing well. With an economy centered on two hosiery mills and a paper mill—the three of which provided the majority of jobs in the city and employment for generations of residents—the city grew.

Downtown Harriman was the social center of the city, with numerous stores, diners, theaters, and other businesses. Commercial ventures that served generations thrived during this time, among them Edward’s, Miller-Brewer, Chase Drugs, and the Princess Theatre.

The Princess Theatre in Harriman.

The Princess Theatre in Harriman.

Harriman’s Diamond Jubilee in 1965 seems to have even outdone its Semi-Centennial of a quarter century before. Lasting a week, the celebration included a parade, pageant, the return of early settlers, and renewed civic pride. The city had much to celebrate, for it was then that it seems to have reached its peak economically.

The latter decades of the 20th century saw decline for the city, however. By the end of the century, the hosiery mills and paper plant had closed, leaving Harriman with significantly fewer jobs. Partially due to the interstate highway system, many businesses had also moved out of downtown, and some of the buildings fell into disrepair.

In spite of these setbacks, Harriman rightfully remains proud of its heritage, and civic groups continue to work to preserve the city’s history. The annual Hooray For Harriman event, held over Labor Day weekend, attracts thousands each year. The Princess Theatre, one of the city’s greatest landmarks, which had closed in 1999, was recently restored by the city and reopened, providing concerts, plays, and other cultural activities for the community.

Today, the legacy of Harriman’s past remains apparent in the Temperance Building and the Victorian architecture of Cornstalk Heights. With many of the houses built during the time of Harriman’s rapid growth (1890–1893), the city is in some ways frozen in that time period, with homes and buildings reflecting the architecture popular at that time.

The temperance philosophy also lasted a long time in the city. Following the repeal of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition) in 1933, Harriman passed Ordinance No. 486, outlawing the sale of beer within the city. Temperance for the city officially ended in the 1990s, when the sale of liquor was legalized, a very controversial and divisive issue even then. Today, many residents still hold strong to the ideals of temperance.

Temperance Building (Harriman City Hall) as locals turn out to see men off to serve in World War I.

Temperance Building (Harriman City Hall) as locals turn out to see men off to serve in World War I.

This book is an attempt to bring this history to life through historical photographs of the people, places, events, and institutions that have made Harriman special. It is divided into 10 chapters, each devoted to a certain aspect of the city’s colorful history. The images are presented in roughly chronological order by chapter, though at times they have been organized thematically. As with any historical work, mistakes may have seeped in, for which the author apologizes.

As a native of Harriman it is an honor to work on such an important project, and it is the author’s sincere wish that this book will help reignite interest in preserving the history of the “Town that Temperance Built.” There is much in the town’s past to be proud of, and there is much about its future that looks bright.

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