Johnson City, TN

Organized Crime Plagues Johnson City

John M. Dabbs
Photo by Kazi Mizan on Unsplash

It began at the turn of the last century

The 20th century found Johnson City, Tennessee. It became a center of travel and commerce in the 1920s and became very profitable for serious entrepreneurs - legitimate and otherwise. Since the early 1900s, outsiders have found their way to crossroads in Northeast Tennessee. Johnson City became the railroad hub of Northeast Tennessee in 1908 with three companies going out in six different directions. The railroads brought many industries to the area. Not all of these were anticipated or even wanted.


In the "roaring 20s", each railroad operated its own yard in the city, distributing and collecting cars from the various industries. At one time,18-22 passenger trains made their way through Johnson City daily. Plans were in the works for a union station for all lines, just west of Broadway. It never materialized, but each railroad had its own station near Fountain Square (the business hub of Johnson City) in the early 1900s. The town and businesses grew around this city center.
Photo by Carlos Leret on Unsplash

Many people today are unaware that the railroads in Johnson City connected Chicago to Charleston and Miami, Western North Carolina to Knoxville, and New England to Atlanta. The ET&WNC Rail-Road was built for transporting iron ore and timber. You may have heard of Bumpus Cove, on the Unicoi County-Washington County line. The narrow-gage line was used to more easily navigate the mountains and Doe River Gorge. The rail bed is silent between Elizabethton and Johnson City and is now home to the Tweetsie Trail. The companies have been bought and sold over the years. The other two are now known as CSX and Norfolk-Southern. They still haul freight through the area today.

Supply and Demand

In the 1920s, the people coming by rail brought opportunity with the freight. Prohibition is rumored to have played a vital role in the development of the city as the southern hub for noted gangsters. The rule of law was mocked by criminals, as the underfunded and understaffed police force was held at bay for all but the most local of crimes.

As the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks were known for home-brew stills, prohibition led illicit businessmen to seek out these suppliers to fill orders for their customers in Chicago and the Northeast. Al Capone was reported to have organized the distribution from suppliers in the south to the demand in the north. Capone was not one to settle in a place for long and was known to travel most of the time to avoid problems with other crime bosses across the country. Rumors and tales of his travels put him in Johnson City's Montrose Apartments, Windsor, and John Sevier hotels at times.

The freight coming through Johnson City at the time would make it an ideal distribution hub for flowing liquor through to Chicago and other northern cities. The nature of prohibition and its local view did little to aid in the enforcement of laws related to it locally. Citizens basically just wanted to be left alone. Public officials and businessmen reportedly used subtle influence to keep police working on less complex crimes.

Fighting Crime

The rise in population had the city more than doubling during this time. A wave of robberies from hoodlums and undesirables had the newspapers crying for the police to act, or the civic organizations and people would begin to do their jobs for them.
Photo by David East on Unsplash

As modern highways and the Tri-Cities Airport grew, passenger rail service fell off. Passenger rail service had stopped completely in Johnson City by 1970. Businesses grew at a faster pace, but the city hub was no longer the Appalachian crossroads it had once been. Marginalizing the railroads as people were able to more easily travel by highways and the skyways, left the growth of Johnson City slowing for many years.

The problem with enforcing the law - many judges and powerful officials were owned or involved with more complex and powerful organizations. Such organizations could have officials pull strings to keep their people out of jail or provide them light sentences. These were organizations that often dealt with people who couldn't be bought.

Criminal Influence

At least one official from the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole had his family threatened, seeking the early release of its ringleader. The official's children attended school in Johnson City/Washington County and had a bodyguard accompany them all throughout the day to ensure their safety. At one point, his young daughter was almost kidnapped from a grocery store cart. The mother's frantic screaming was the only thing that saved the child - she was found safely standing two isles over, not knowing who the person was.

It was a different age. When alcohol was less of an issue with the repeal of prohibition, drugs became a serious issue. No longer were the rails the major source of distribution - people carried them and traveled by private plane or used a car along the new U.S. Highways and Interstates.

The Cove

Bumpus Cove returned to prominence. The mines were no longer worked as a source of iron ore, but they were mined for other chemicals. They were transformed into dumping grounds for toxic waste from across the country. Whole trucks, filled with chemicals, were pulled into the mines and buried. After the site was formally made into a landfill, Westinghouse, Eastman Chemical Company, and Nuclear Fuels were a few of the companies seeking the dispose of waste there.

It was reported that toxic waste from as far away as Chicago was transported to Bumpus Cove and dumped during the night. Illness fell to many families living near Bumpus Cove, and the neighbors formed a community group, seeking to shut down the site. Owners and interested parties had local law enforcement push back on the group to keep the roads open and unobstructed. At one point, a warrant was even issued for the leader of the group, and his family was threatened with serious harm.

It took a call to then-Congressman James H. "Jimmy" Quillen to calm things down. Quillen's office asked the EPA to look into the site. It was eventually re-evaluated and de-certified, becoming one of Tennessee's first Superfund - toxic waste mitigation sites. The landfill remains cordoned off with a fence and maintained with ventilation and ground-water well monitoring. It is scheduled to come off the program in 2029 if all tests are suitable.


As with the movie, The Godfather, organized crime evolved with the times. Alcohol was no longer hard to obtain commodity, but drugs, gambling, and prostitution were still in high demand. Prostitution in the area was mostly epitomized with the street-walkers, who frequented downtown and were picked up regularly and fined. The actual prostitute rings are more carefully run and have an element of human trafficking involved. Advertisements were found for their services on sites like Backpage and Craigslist. The pros weren't the problem of the local police, as they did not cause problems leading to theft or other crimes. That was the mark of a streetwalker - the lower class of criminal.

Drugs remain a serious issue. Both gangs and serious organized crime families use the area routinely. It is not uncommon for murders in the Johnson City area to be drug-related. Often, drug-related hits aren't publicized, as the message gets to the intended parties. An attorney threatening to contact the district attorney because a client is threatened... he ends up dead. A junkie trying to get off drugs is pulled out of rehab and shot full of drugs and overdosed - written off as an overdose, not a murder. The tell-tale sign is the appearance of professionally dressed outsiders attending the funeral, with no ties to the friends or family of the deceased... none that anyone knows about.

Public Relations

With Time magazine's tribute to Al Capone and his face on the cover - many in Johnson City took note and reportedly had seen Mr. Capone in and around Johnson City. The talk was in more reserved and hushed tones until The Godfather glamourized the crime families and mafia as a whole.

After the horror of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, outrage had many raids across the country by local, state, and federal authorities. Many of Capone's distributors were raided in an effort to put an end to his business. Capone was a smart businessman. He never had anything in writing and kept no records. He traveled under aliases and never stayed in the same place long, or too often. It added to his fame.

The changes after the repeal of prohibition left other groups less appealing. Capone - he was still known for alcohol. Something not viewed as a real vice by most people, unless consumed to excess. Johnson City began to embrace the "Little Chicago" moniker. Using the roaring 20s and the excitement as a springboard to energize a city that has seen little growth lately.

In the meanwhile, the real criminal elements within Johnson City are still here. They keep a low profile and avoid attracting the attention of the law, and the general public. The police know it isn't these criminals that are the real problem they deal with on a daily basis. They deal with the lower class criminals with fewer morals. These are where you find your rapists, robbers, and thieves.

Organized crime does business smartly. They grease the right palms and know who they owe... but more importantly - who owes them. Do they have the ear and fear of our elected officials or chiefs of the industry?

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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