- Appalachian Aspirations. The Geography of Urbanization and Development in the Upper Tennessee River Valley, 1865–1900 by John Benhart, Jr.
This is a story about failure, as the author tells us in his introduction, specifically the failure of New South industrial urbanism in four East Tennessee towns—Rockwood, Harriman, Lenoir City, and Cardiff—in the 35 yr following the Civil War. The first three of these are substantial towns today, familiar to anyone who knows the greater Knoxville/Oak Ridge area, so clearly this was not utter failure. Yet insofar as they were expected to spark a great iron and steel district on the order of Birmingham, “failure” is not too far off the mark. A brief digression on the naming of regions is necessary here. Throughout the book, Benhart refers to his study area as the “Upper Tennessee River Valley,” a region that would seem to include most of East Tennessee, large areas of southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, and even a slice of northern Georgia, but Benhart restricts it to two Tennessee counties, Roane and Loudon. Some of his generalizations may raise an eyebrow until the reader realizes that his Upper Tennessee River Valley does not include industrial cities like Knoxville, Kingsport, Johnson City, Bristol, and Asheville.
Rockwood was the first of Benhart’s towns to appear. It grew up around the works of the Roane Iron Company, founded by two Union Army officers who noticed an abundance of iron ore, coal, and limestone along the eastern edge of the Cumberland Plateau while on active duty during the Civil War, and returned soon after the war to develop an iron industry. Roane Iron got off to a vigorous and innovative start in late 1867. The company built coke ovens and was the first iron operation in the South to use this great improvement over charcoal. In 1870 it acquired the Chattanooga [End Page 373] Rolling Mills and became a successful purveyor of iron rails to southern railroads. But early success was soon followed by stagnation. Steel rails were the future of railroading by the late 1870s, because they allowed heavier and more high-powered trains. Roane Iron, bankrolled by Knoxville’s leading capitalist, Charles McClung McGhee, tried the open hearth and the Bessemer processes, but was never able to produce reliable steel rails. The problem was the high phosphorus content of the local ore, which had been good enough for iron rails, but not for steel. Plans for technological fixes that might (or might not) have gotten around the impurities problem were abandoned because of capital famine in the Panic of 1893. The company survived, and remained in business until 1929, but as a modest regional producer of pig iron, not a great steel power.
Harriman, Lenoir City, and Cardiff were what Benhart calls “model industrial real estate ventures,” the product of corporate capitalism, as opposed to the industrial capitalism of Rockwood. Each was launched by a land company that drew on a national capital pool that had been mobilized for railroad construction, but which by 1890 was looking for new outlets as the railroad industry matured. These land companies raised money in the financial markets of the north to buy large tracts of land, 200,000 ac in the case of the East Tennessee Land Company, which launched Harriman.
The land company’s profit was to come not from production or construction activities directly, but from being holding companies for a variety of subsidiary companies that would be involved in mining, manufacturing and railroads, and from subdividing and selling land holdings that would have gained greatly in value because of all this business activity. The land company surveyed and laid out a town, featuring the latest in planning, sanitation, and temperance ordinances, and also created what today might be called industrial parks, with rail links and other infrastructure for the subsidiary companies and other new industries that would be induced to move in.