Bristol, TN

How Bristol Lost When We Won the Cold War

John M. Dabbs

(Former Raytheon Plant - Photo by John Dabbs)

Bristol, Tennessee - At the height of the Cold War, Bristol was booming with business and industry. You may recognize the names:

  • Sperry-UNIVAC
  • Raytheon
  • Bristol Steel
  • United-Intermountain Telephone

By 1940, Bristol Tennessee/Virginia had a population around 32,000. It was the leading city in the Northeast Tennessee-Southwest Virginia Region. Bristol adopted the "Good Place to Live" moniker, replacing the old "Push- That's Bristol".


Bristol thrived. It's at the center of a five-state area. It has railroads, highways, and air travel making it the ideal distribution center. The Tennessee Valley Authority provides lots of inexpensive electricity. Bristol's proximity to Knoxville and Oak Ridge meant work to support the war effort. Textile mills, woodworking plants, and other factories were pushing out mass goods in World War II.

Center of commerce

The commercial district centered on Bristol's State Street grew to the largest shopping and business district between Roanoke and Knoxville. It was the "Shopping Center of the Appalachians." H.P. King Department Store was the largest department store in the region. Meanwhile, E.W. King Company distributed wholesale dry goods over a seven-state area. Parks Belk Department Store joined the ranks of Woolworth and Kress five-and-dime, along with J. C. Penney.

Following World War II, men returned home to find even bigger economy than when they'd went off to war. Between 1940 and 1956 Bristol's population increased by 62%. Over 14,000 were employed in commerce - 10,000 of those in industry. Two railroads (Norfolk & Western, and Southern served the city), and six U.S. Highways.

Military industrial complex

Wartime industries built in Bristol. A shell loading plant and Universal Moulded Products employed over 3,600 workers. Raytheon, built a magnetron tube plant in Bristol, hiring another 2,000 people. Monroe Calculation Company began in Bristol with another 1,200. Advanced weaponry and technology became engrained the in the local infrastructure. Sperry Farragut Company came to Bristol and hired another 1,000 people for their plant.

The big fade

In the 1960s and 1970s, many retailers moved into strip malls and out of downtown. The Bristol Mall took most of the larger department stores as anchor stores. These changes came when the cold war was about to wind down.


Sperry-Farragut Company built their UNIVAC computer plant on the outskirts of Bristol. Sperry's UNIVAC division built purpose-specific computer equipment and gyroscopes for the Department of Defense. Over the years, the U.S. used their guidance and launch systems in many parts of the defense industry.

(Former Sperry-UNIVAC plant - Photo by John Dabbs)

The company spun off many of their branches and sold the corporation in the 1970s and 1980s near the end of the cold war. Ike Lowry, former employee of Sperry, championed the Enhanced 9-1-1 project development in the county and served as Sullivan County's first 9-1-1 Director.


The Raytheon plant transitioned to missile factory over the years. During the cold war they built missile systems, missiles, and guidance systems. They began making their own guidance systems when the Bristol plant transitioned to the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command. As times changed, and the Berlin wall fell in the 1980s, the Cold War ended.

War in the gulf

President George H. W. Bush formed a coalition of countries opposing Iraq, when they invaded their neighbor - Kuwait. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were large oil-exporting countries which affected the economies of many nations. Iraq could easily threaten Saudi Arabia as well and had threatened Israel. President Bush protected Israel, Saudi Arabia, and coalition forces with the Patriot Missile Defense Systems - Manufactured by Raytheon - Missile Systems Division.

The plant in Bristol made part of the missile system that was used to knock out several Iraqi SCUD missiles fired on coalition forces and Israel with outstanding success. Company employees took pride in seeing their work being used on the nightly news and cable networks. They even sold shirts emblazoned with "SCUD Busters!" in the plant.

(Photo of Iraqi Scud missile that has been shot down - courtesy U.S. National Archives

Raytheon's Bristol plant manager, William Carroll Leonard, (Piney Flats, TN) was an electrical engineer who transferred from Sperry to Raytheon after the Navy took over the plant. He worked his way up through the company and served as plant manager until just before his retirement. Leonard said "I love doing the work, and the people here are great at what they do."


It was not long after "Operation Desert Shield" and "Operation Desert Storm", where the Patriot Missile Systems saw use, that the Raytheon plant in Bristol, Tennessee closed. The plant was closed as they completed a modern plant further south. The old plant relied heavily on human manipulation of parts and equipment, which also led to lower production and higher potential for errors.

Bristol Steel

Inexpensive steel from China decimated the domestic steel markets, even Pittsburg Steel took a massive hit. Most of the ramaining structure in Bristol are not even recognizable as ever being part of Bristol Steel. One near the old newspaper office is now home to a scrap and salvage metal collection site.

Raytheon, Sperry, Exide, Bristol Steel... they are long gone industries that once fed the men and women who call Bristol home. Once the leader of the Tri-Cities metropolitan statistical area (MSA), it is only Bristol TN, Bristol VA, and Kingsport in the MSA now. Johnson City has risen above the ranks and has its own MSA these days. Bristol has lost much of its industry and glory that went with it. It transitioned from the center of influence to the center of retirement.

What's next

Wages here are lower than the U.S. and Tennessee average, and crime is higher here than the U.S. and Tennessee average (property crime). The people of our fair city are educated, with a higher percentage having a high school diploma, four-year degree, professional or doctoral degree than the state or nation.... what gives?

United Telephone

Rail service is no longer the driving force it once was, yet we have a major U.S. Interstate passing through our town. Communications giant Inter-Mountain Telephone and its successors are no longer a driving force with the transition to cellular phones and internet phone systems. At one time the Southeast Group Headquarters for United Telephone (successor to Intermountain and United-Intermountain Telephone) was headquartered here. As Sprint took up United Telephone, jobs - and the HQ... moved to North Carolina.

Turn the page

The Exide battery plant that once occupied the old Sperry factory even pulled up stakes and left. What is to become of our town? Will a casino and dirt-on-concrete racing help?

Bristol Motor Speedway

NASCAR is one of the hot sports - or it was in the 1990s and 2000s. After the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008, even the routinely sold-out Bristol Motor Speedway night race saw a dramatic decline in ticket sales. The economy falling, NASCAR took a big hit, especially at the World's Fastest Half Mile. Spring and Fall race tickets are still easy to find these days - until the pandemic hit and capacity was greatly reduced for social distancing.

BMS employees rolled up their sleeves and got dirty - literally. They packed the high-banks and straights with dirty to make one of the best dirt-racing spectacles in the south - and for NASCAR, the Outlaws, and others it was an ugly, dirty, muddy experience with a bit of rain and flooding to help things along. All in all, it turned out to be successful. BMS plans to return the dirt surface for 2022 based on 2021's success. The track will be cleared and cleaned back down to the concrete for the night race this fall.

If the pandemic lets up, we may see attendance numbers continue to climb. We can only hope.

Is it time to reinvent Bristol

How much longer can our town survive with a median age of 42.7 with a national average of 38.2? We are effectively a retirement town.

Our poverty rate is 18.7% compared to 13.1% for the country. Our children are leaving (or should) for a better life. There is very little for them here compared with what is available elsewhere. Time to wake up and get a plan together.

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

Bristol, TN

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