The Tennessee-Virginia Tri-Cities: Urbanization in Appalachia, 1900-1950

By Dotson, Rand | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Tennessee-Virginia Tri-Cities: Urbanization in Appalachia, 1900-1950


Dotson, Rand, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Tennessee-Virginia Tri-Cities: Urbanization in Appalachia, 1900-1950 * Tom Lee * Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005 * xvi, 344 pp. * $42.00

Although Tom Lee searches earnestly for middle ground in the debate over the longterm effects of industrialization and urbanization in Appalachia, in the end he sides with scholars who contend the process exploited the region's people and left a legacy of environmental ruin, poverty, and ignorance. Using the Tri-Cities area of northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia as the locale for a richly detailed case study of the process, Lee makes a powerful argument that is certain to add much to the debate. Mainly, he contends that in the Tri-Cities region, harvesting natural resources benefited northern investors and native elites almost exclusively, and that once the resources disappeared, both groups turned to taking advantage of a cheap and compliant labor pool by selling former mountaineers "uplift" in the form of dead-end factory jobs. The resulting industrialization and urbanization, Lee maintains, all but destroyed opportunity in the countryside, trapped locals in low-skill, low-wage employment, and left most of the residents of the Tri-Cities area little better off than they had been back on the farm.

Like towns elsewhere in Appalachia, the Tri-Cities-Johnson City and Kingsport, Tennessee, and the state-line towns of Bristol, Tennessee/Bristol, Virginia-emerged as small trading hubs once railroads penetrated the region first to haul away its coal, iron, and timber, and then to haul away its factory goods and people. Johnson City and Bristol, successfully boosted to outside investors by native elites in the 188Os and 189Os, became important boomtowns; Kingsport, laid out in 1906 by a native railroad baron, eventually became a factory town. Early on, Lee argues, mountaineers tested the waters of industrial capitalism, maintaining their farms and working only seasonally in the emerging mines and mills. By the 1920s, however, mountain men and their families were abandoning the countryside in droves. Few, Lee argues, could resist inevitable "integration into the market economy" because they were "bound to national markets draining resources from the area . . . [and] lacked the capital or will to move beyond dependence on the extraction of natural resources occurring in the hinterland" (pp. …

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