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225 Years of Commerce and Industry (Part 2)

By: 
Jessica Karsten
Date: 
Tuesday, October 4, 2016

225 Years of Commerce and Industry (Part 2)
A History of Knoxville’s Diverse Business Community

Photo: 1859 view of Knoxville, Selected Photographs
(Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection – Digital Collection. Click photo to visit collection.)

1850 – 1890s: Knoxville’s Era of Wholesaling and Manufacturing

Following the Civil War, the expansion of railroads made Knoxville a leading distribution center and also led to the capitalization of natural resources in surrounding rural areas. Iron ore, coal, marble, and timber were utilized in the manufacturing industry during this time, leading to the creation of a wide range of products and jobs.

A substantial manufacturing boom in the 1870s and 1880s led to the formation of a number of establishments like the Knoxville Iron Company, which quickly became one of the most successful businesses in the city. Other general manufacturing operations in Knoxville included marble and stone work, timber products, and furniture.

Gay Street served as the city’s commercial and cultural center with a number of wholesale and jobbing houses nestled in the heart of downtown. By 1896, the city was the third leading wholesale center in the south with 50 wholesale houses generating a total of $50 million in sales a year.

A number of entrepreneurs started their businesses in this commercial hub including a former slave named Caldonia “Cal” Fackler Johnson who became a self-made real estate mogul operating three saloons in addition to several other interests. Cal Johnson died in 1925 as the richest African-American in Knoxville and one of the richest in the state of Tennessee.

The extensive business growth in Knoxville led to the creation of the Board of Trade in 1869, which later became the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce. The organization worked to encourage industrial plants to locate in or around the city, foster educational initiatives, and encourage city improvements to increase the desirability of Knoxville as a place of residence and commercial enterprise. The Chamber still remains the active voice for the Knoxville business community 147 years later.

 
Photo (above): Gay Street, Knoxville, from Miller's Building ca. 1890, Thompson Photograph Collection
(Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection – Digital Collection. Click photo to visit collection.)
 
Photo (right): Knoxville Iron Company, Small Photographs Collection
(Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection – Digital Collection. Click photo to visit collection.)
 

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