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Wilbur Wright once said, “There is no sport equal to that which aviators enjoy while being carried through the air on great white wings.”

And as our very own Tri-Cities Regional Airport celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year, I decided to look back in time to learn about our local history of aviation.

In May of 1911, pilot Fred Eells introduced locals to the excitement of flight by organizing an “air meet” at the Fairmount Golf Grounds in Bristol. People came from miles around — by horse-drawn carriages — and were fascinated with the flying machines that were invented by the Wright Brothers only eight years earlier.

Almost a decade later, a pilot flying a Curtiss “Jenny” over Johnson City was forced to make an emergency landing in a grassy field. It didn’t take long before other pilots started asking for permission to keep their planes there as well, and the little field affectionately called “Johnson City Airport” soon began hosting weekend air shows and regular events.

But by the early 1930s, with the increased popularity of flying, the airfield wasn’t large enough to be practical. Talks began of building a centrally located airport to provide service to the area, and a 323-acre site near Blountville was named as the future home of the Tri-Cities Regional Airport.

On October 12, 1935, construction began. And within two years, two small runways, a terminal building and an aircraft hangar were complete, and the airport was ready for the landing of its first commercial aircraft — an American Airlines DC-2.

In 1941, the War Training Service was an integral part of aviation activity at the airport. Aviation cadets came from King College in Bristol and the State Teachers College (now East Tennessee State University) in Johnson City to receive basic flight instruction to become WWII pilots, navigators and bombardiers.

Virtually every type of civilian and military aircraft, fixed-wing and helicopter, has visited the Airport at one time or another over the past 75 years — from DC-3s to F-28s to Air Force One itself! Today, the airport currently covers an area of 1,225 acres and offers nonstop flights to four major hubs.

So next time you fly through the friendly skies of Northeast Tennessee, think back to the innovation, passion and hard work of local aeronautical heroes — they have left a true legacy.

For more information about Tri-Cities Regional Airport, visit


It wasn’t so much what he said, or how he said it, that led to British Colonel Patrick Ferguson’s demise.

It was WHO he said it to.

During the Revolutionary War, Ferguson was charged with flushing out unruly settlers who’d defied a royal order and settled west of the Appalachian Mountains. But when he threatened them, saying he’d “lay their country to waste with fire and sword,” the settlers in modern-day Northeast Tennessee and the surrounding area decided they weren’t going to wait for the British to come find them. They were going to handle the matter themselves.

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In February of 1894, a feeble, one-armed man walked into the offices of Dr. W.T. Delaney in Bristol. His name was James Keelan, and though he was never one to take charity, he was in a bit of a pinch. His wife had died, and Keelan was the sole guardian of three granddaughters. And at age 76, he had no reasonable option for employment. However, the Tennessee legislature had funded a pension for former Confederate soldiers, and Keelan—claiming he was a veteran of the Civil War—was there to request his rightful payment. But when Delaney began to question the man about his service, he uncovered one of the most incredible and heroic stories he’d ever heard…which would forever earn Keelan a place in American Military history. This is his story:

James Keelan was born in Virginia in 1818. The son of farmers, Keelan learned to hunt, fish, and farm at a young age. He led a relatively quiet existence until the onset of the Civil War. By that time, he was 43 years old, but still enlisted in the Confederate Army within the Will Thomas Legion.

James Keelan

In October of 1861, unbeknownst to the Confederates, the pro-Union William B. Carter devised a plan to invade East Tennessee via the Cumberland Gap (a crucial crossing point for the Confederate Army). Without hesitation, the plan was approved by President Lincoln, General William Sheridan and General George Thomas. As the invasion started, some unexpected moves by the Confederates separated the Union regiments, and Carter’s army was left alone to invade Tennessee, burning bridges and destroying infrastructure. They were successful, to a point, until they reached the Strawberry Plains Bridge over the Holston River outside Knoxville. And as it turns out, the regiment assigned to protect the Strawberry Plains Bridge was none other than the Will Thomas Legion.

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It’s no secret that Northeast Tennessee features some of the most amazing natural beauty in the world. And among the picturesque mountains along the eastern edge of the state, perhaps none is more magical and memorable than Roan Mountain in Carter County.

One of the first people to take note of this was Union General John Wilder in the 1880s. Just a few years before, he’d commanded “Wilder’s Lightning Brigade” in the Civil War. He was quick-witted and extremely intelligent, not to mention an inventor, expert in hydraulics, and foundry owner. And when he laid eyes on Roan Mountain, he decided to add another title to his resume: Hotel Entrepreneur.

Originally from New York, Wilder had settled in Tennessee after the war. He quickly saw the strategic advantage of nearby Johnson City as a railroad junction, and with the nearby Cranberry Mines, he planned to establish the area as a center of iron and steel manufacturing. He built the Carnegie Furnace and established the Carnegie Land Company (which explains the Carnegie Hotel and Andrew Carnegie’s connection to East Tennessee). But standing at the top of Roan Mountain in 1884, Wilder realized that scenic beauty was a “mine” of a different sort. He envisioned a hotel that would seamlessly combine creature comforts with the serenity that only picturesque views of Northeast Tennessee could provide.

It would be called the Cloudland Hotel, and Wilder envisioned patrons from across the country praising its unique offerings. In fact, an advertisement in a local paper read:

Come up out of the sultry plains
to the land of the sky.
Magnificent views above the clouds
where the rivers are born.
The hotel is the highest human habitation
east of the Rocky Mountains.

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Sarah Lane was a normal lady. She was born in Greene County in the 1830s, married Sylvanius S. Thompson, and by all accounts, maintained a very “average” existence.

But when the Civil War broke out, her husband was one of the few Northeast Tennesseeans to align himself with the Union Army. So he (and Sarah) spent the next few months organizing Union sympathizers and infiltrating the Confederate ranks in Greeneville. And so, it was only a matter of time until, in 1864, Sylvanius was ambushed and killed by a Confederate soldier.

Sarah Thompson

Sarah was devastated. But instead of wallowing in self-pity, she vowed revenge. She dedicated herself more than ever to the Union cause.

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We’ve all heard stories about mobsters during the Prohibition era, about bootlegging, speakeasies, and rings of organized crime. And from those stories, no figure is more notorious than Chicago’s Al Capone.

But here’s what you may not have heard: in those days, Chicago wasn’t the only center of vice in the United States. In fact, one little town in Northeast Tennessee was gaining plenty of notoriety for debauchery.

And that little town—was our very own Johnson City.

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Well, it’s not actually one of the “Seven Wonders.”

As a matter of fact, this wonder is one of only TWO on Earth. And the strange thing is: you’ve probably never heard of it.

Located in the southern part of Hawkins County (near Rogersville), Ebbing and Flowing Spring is one of only two springs in the world to exhibit tidal characteristics with a predictable regularity.

What does that mean?

Well, as its name implies, the spring goes from a gentle trickle to a flood of more than 500 gallons per minute. And it does it every 2 hours and 47 minutes. Unlike thermal springs that produce warm water, the temperature of Ebbing and Flowing Spring maintains a constant 34° Fahrenheit year-round. Read the rest of this entry »

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