Gov. Taylor immediately wired, "The laws of Tennessee must be upheld."

Posted by | April 12, 2017

The most serious difficulty that arose over the stateline issue, and one which threatened bloodshed, was what has been termed the “The Water-Works War.” In April, 1889, the Bristol-Goodson Water Company, then just completing their plant on the Tennessee side, desired to extend their water-mains to the Virginia side. This evoked a loud protest from the Virginia authorities and public.

tn va state line

Sam L. King, president and principal owner of the water company, ordered his workmen to extend a pipe to Everett’s restaurant, located near the corner of Main and Front streets. No sooner had the workmen reached the disputed territory than officers arrested them and they were fined for trespass.

As a further test the president himself stepped into the ditch and began digging, when he was arrested by officer James Cox — taken to jail and afterwards fined. The Goodson council issued an injunction, restraining the water company from working beyond the middle of Main street. This injunction was respected. The Goodson authorities had engaged some of the leading lawyers on the Tennessee side as council- N. M. Taylor, C. J. St. John, Sr., and W. D. Haynes.

When the Bristol-Goodson Water Company desisted in their work the Goodson council ordered work to begin on a line of pipe down Main street. They had a large force of men and made considerable speed. King appealed to Gov. Taylor of Tennessee to prevent them from trespassing, claiming that the agreement between the two councils as to the location of the line had never been approved by the legislature of either state. The governor in answer referred him to his legal advisers, who were also representing the city of Goodson. Warrants were issued for E. H. Seneker, acting mayor — in the absence of Mayor Fanning Miles— and all his councilmen.

The matter being laid before Judge John P. Smith, chancellor of the first Tennessee division, an injunction was issued, restraining the Virginia authorities. N. M. Taylor withdrew from the case.

Sheriff R. S. Cartwright, with his deputies, was placed in charge. Sheriff Hughes, with his deputies, hastened to the scene to protect the interests of Washington County and the State of Virginia.

Gov. Taylor being notified of the injunction, immediately wired, “The laws of Tennessee must be upheld.”

Cartwright hurried his deputies through Sullivan County and summoned a posse comitatus. Several hundred responded. They came with all kinds of weapons, as determined as their forefathers were, when called to defend their country.

Front Street, Bristol, VA

Front Street, Bristol, VA. No date. Courtesy Bristol Historical Association.


King’s forces seized the armory of the A. D. R. Rifles and appropriated all the guns. The hardware stores found eager buyers for all the weapons in stock.

On account of King’s life having been threatened, Sheriff Cartwright made him a deputy sheriff so that he could go armed, to protect himself.

The Sullivan County forces rendezvoused on Alabama street— they marched out Fifth Street to Main and lined up and down the street, facing the ditch on the Virginia side. The workmen in this ditch were armed, as were the line of deputies put there to defend them.

Sheriff Cartwright, with a warrant for James Cox, stepped over to serve it, when Cox, in his effort to elude that officer, caught his foot on a water pipe and fell, with the sheriff on top of him.

Charles Worley came to Cox’s rescue, when H. C. Caldwell, Chief-of-Police of Bristol, and Tip Powell, a deputy, rushed to Cartwright ‘s assistance. It became a general scuffle and the tenseness of the scene was such that, had a cap exploded, it would have been followed by a fusilade of bullets, for the guns were not loaded with blanks that day.

Officer Worley, who had not taken the situation so seriously as had some of the others, said to Caldwell, “Oh, let’s get out of this,” and the two men got up and walked off together.

TN Governor Robert Taylor wired: "The laws of Tennessee must be upheld."  Photo Tennessee State Library and Archives.

TN Governor Robert Taylor wired: “The laws of Tennessee must be upheld.” Photo Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Mayor Seneker, acting under reasonable advice, withdrew his workmen from the ditch and placed them in another part of the town. Influential citizens addressed the assembling crowds and urged peace. After much persuasion the leaders agreed to settle the matter in court, and so the friction between the two states, that had threatened a bloody conflict, was tempered by the prospect of an amicable adjustment.

In 1890 the state-line controversy came up before the United States Supreme Court. The state of Virginia was represented by Rufus A. Ayers and William F. Rhea — Tennessee by A. S. Colyer, Abram L. Demoss, N. M. Taylor Thomas Curtin, Hal H. Haynes, C. J. St. John, Sr., and W. D. Haynes. Rhea for Virginia, and Curtin for Tennessee were the examiners. Many witnesses were introduced — among them the sole survivor of a former survey, Col. George R. McClellan. Gen. J. D. Imboden and Gen. James Greever were also witnesses.

As usual the ridiculous side developed in the testimony of some of the witnesses. One confused the Henderson-Walker line with the Mason and Dixon line.A complete history of the dispute was submitted and the Supreme Court decided in favor of Tennessee — that the compromise line of 1802 was the correct line.

In April, 1900 a commission composed of William C. Hodgkins, of Massachusetts, James B. Baylor, of Virginia, and Andrew Buchanan, of Tennessee, was named to retrace and re-mark the old compromise line of 1802. This was completed in 1901-02.

On January 28, 1903, the State of Tennessee ceded to Virginia the northern half of State street, thus ending a long and tedious controversy.


from Historic Sullivan; a history of Sullivan County, Tennessee, with brief biographies of the makers of history,” by Oliver Taylor Sr., King Printing Co, Bristol, TN, 1909

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