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The Rebirth of Jonesboro Part 3



The era of railroad building was opening all over the country. Lines were being pushed southward from the north, and eastward from the southern states, until 1850a single gap of a hundred and fifty miles existed across East Tennessee, and no real communication could exist until this gap be bridged. To satisfy the need, the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad was organized, largely by Jonesboro and Washington County men who, despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, pushed the project through to completion, the first through trains running in May, 1858. Dr. Samuel Cunningham, a highly regarded physician of Jonesboro, laid aside a lucrative practice to devote his efforts to the construction and completion of the railroad, and became its first president. In the troubled days just before the Civil War, when local sentiment was divided over the matter of succession and feeling was running high, T. A. R. Nelson, prominent local attorney, and Andrew Johnson were to speak on the subject, both hoping to keep the state of the Union. Use of the courthouse had been denied them, and the meeting was held in a vacant lot across the street. The feelings of the crowd were divided and inflamed, and for the first time, a general melee seemed impending. As Johnson tried to speak, tension increased, knives and pistols were flourished, and the crowd surged toward the rostrum, threatening violence. Dr. N. Nelson, local physician-minister, stepped in front of Johnson, shouting “You must kill me before you kill him!” Finally the crowd was quieted, but a witness wrote “Such a time has never been since  I have lived in this place.” Fires were frequent in the early days, when most roofs were wooden shingles, and fire-fighting facilities were non- existent. Jonesboro was no exception and possibly had more than its fair share of dangerous blazes. Possibly the worst was on the evening of December 31, 1873, originating in the saloon building of Tom Deer, near the location of the present post office. Burning eastward toward, Cherokee Street, it turned south and consumed everything along the street to Little Limestone Creek, near the railroad. Westward on Main Street, it raged unhindered to an open space beyond the present Banking and Trust Company. A picture taken the next morning show nothing standing in the area except ruined brick walls. Only by strenuous effort was the Chester Inn, across the street, saved from the flames. Five years later on the block on East Main Street from Fox Street To Courthouse Square, as well as all The buildings facing the east side of the courthouse to Little Limestone Creek, were consumed. The estimated loss was around$ 60,000.00, a large some for that period. Another five years and the area of the 1873 fire, rebuilt in the meantime, was again burned over, nothing escaping the brick storehouse on the corner. In these, and other fires not so extensive, many early building of historical and architectural interest were destroyed, buildings that today would add much to the historic districts air of antiquity. It is indeed fortunate that so many others have been long preserved. There is no single type of architecture dominate in Jonesboro today. Almost every style is represent- Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Gothic Revival, and Victorian- Sometimes pure examples, at other times with details so subtly blended with those of another order that the result seems almost a distinct type. Yet the result is so harmonious that it ads a unique charm to the town, an effect for which Dr. Richard Hale, State Archivist of Massachusetts and widely-known authority on historic restoration, coin the word “Joneboroness.” The oldest building now standing in town is the three-story frame structure, the Chester Inn, dominating the downtown section, which was erected in 1797 by Dr. William P. Chester. In common with a few other pre-1800 frame buildings whose descriptions have survived, it has no distinctive style of architecture, but its timbers display distinctive markings to show that a sawmill of sorts, either a man-powered saw-pit or a primitive water- powered operation, had by this time come into use. Over the years the Presidents of the United States have slept beneath its hospitable roof-Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson- as many more of the prominent men of the state’s first century. For a hundred and seventy- five continuous years, it has served as an inn, hotel, and apartment house. Today, in excellent condition, may look forward to another century of service.

…To be Continued.

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