Kingsport was the first economically diversified, professionally planned, and privately financed city in twentieth-century America. Neither an Appalachian hamlet nor a company town, Kingsport developed as a self-proclaimed “All-American City.” Affected by mergers, buyouts, and shifting economic trends, contemporary Kingsport is a Janus-faced offspring of twentieth-century professional planning and historical forces. Nonetheless, Kingsport represents one of the more successful and complex ventures in modern town planning in the United States. Located along the Holston River in Sullivan and Hawkins Counties in Northeast Tennessee, the city in 1999 claimed an estimated population of 42,769.
Produced by the marriage of New South philosophy and Progressivism and born of a passing historical moment when capitalists turned their attention to Southern Appalachia, the “model city” was a direct offshoot of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway (CC&O). As early as 1906 George L. Carter of Hillsville, Virginia, the mastermind behind the CC&O, had recognized the potential for an industrial city at Kingsport. Beset with financial difficulties, Carter sold his holdings to John B. Dennis and Blair and Company of New York around 1914. The next year Dennis organized the Kingsport Improvement Corporation (KIC) and enlisted J. Fred Johnson, Carter's brother-in-law, as the principal promoter for the new town.
Kingsport's initial planning included the social and economic as well as the physical. Cheap land, low-cost nonunion labor, natural resources, and the desire to create traffic for the railroad were the foundations of Kingsport; interlocking industries that did business with each other while developing outside markets provided the economic base. The KIC, controlled by Dennis and Johnson, opted to sell land and encourage home ownership.
Dennis and Johnson sought advice from a variety of experts but never forfeited decision-making to them. For the physical plan, they hired the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm of John Nolen; for private housing and public building design, Clinton MacKenzie, Thomas Hastings, Grosvenor Atterbury, and Evarts Tracy; and for landscaping and gardening, Lola Anderson (later Mrs. John B. Dennis). For assistance with the development of a school system the KIC looked to Columbia University and the nearby state normal school at Johnson City; for sewerage, sanitation, and disease-prevention, F. S. Tainter of New York, the Tennessee Board of Health, and Dr. T. B. Yancey. KIC lawyers prepared a draft of the articles of incorporation, submitted the document to several southern authorities for evaluation, and consulted the Bureau of Municipal Research in New York. Incorporated in 1917, Kingsport seems to have been the first municipality in Tennessee to be established under a city manager-board of mayor and alderman government.
The success of the efforts of Dennis and Johnson depended on their ability to attract industries. A decade after incorporation, the town claimed ten manufacturing facilities employing 3,383. During the grim years of the Great Depression, Tennessee Eastman Company became Kingsport's largest employer and made the new town an anomaly–an industrial city experiencing growth. During the early 1940s scientists from that same company developed a process for continuous flow production of RDX, an explosive capable of penetrating the hulls of the World War II German submarines. Consequently, Eastman received the contract to build and operate Holston Army Ammunition Plant (Holston Ordnance Works), which by the end of the war had become the largest explosive manufacturing facility in the world. Because of Eastman's success with the ammunition plant, General Leslie Groves of the Manhattan Project arranged for Tennessee Eastman and its parent company, Eastman Kodak, as Clinton Engineering Works, to operate the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge. That facility produced the U-235 that was used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.
During the post-World War II era Kingsport has confronted challenges common to other American cities: decline of the downtown area, urban sprawl and pollution, unsightly strip development, and annexation battles. Although there is much to criticize, there is also much to commend: the neighborhoods, the churches, a very good public school system, the civic clubs, a sound economic base, and cultural opportunities. Kingsport's past is an American paradigm combining capitalistic dreams and the plans they spawned, the loss of effective leadership, blurred vision, and the quest for a new consensus. Attempting to position the town for the challenges of the twenty-first century, city officials and civic leaders have pinned considerable hope on Vision 2017, a community “visioning” process that anticipates the hundredth anniversary of incorporation in the context of the economic potential of a new convention center and hotel complex.
Edward L. Ayers, “Northern Business and the Shape of Southern Progress: The Case of Tennessees Model City,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 39 (1980): 208-22; Margaret Ripley Wolfe, Kingsport Tennessee: A Planned American City (1987)