Roane State Associate Professor John Brown autographs a copy of his book about Harriman for Knoxville resident Lola Tajen following Brown's recent talk.
August 26, 2019
By Bob Fowler
Roane State staff writer
Harriman's colorful history has included fires, a catastrophic flood and economic booms and busts, Roane State associate professor John Brown said.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this East Tennessee town's background, Brown said, is the slogan it acquired when it was created more than 125 years ago: "The Town That Temperance Built."
Brown, a native of Harriman whose grandparents moved to the city in the 1940s, discussed his first book, "Harriman," from Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" book series, during a recent talk at Roane State's Oak Ridge campus.
He said alcoholism had become a major social problem in the 19th century, and that led to the creation of the American Temperance Society in 1826.
By 1840, there were more than a million society members, Brown said.
A land venture, the East Tennessee Land Company, was created and bought land in the area with the intent to build a city, Brown said. Residents were to be hard-working and sober, blessed with "exalted moral character whose workers were uncorrupted by Demon Rum," according to one account.
Harriman was founded in 1889 by American Temperance Society member and industrialist Frederick Gates. The city is named for Union Army General Walter Harriman.
In 1889, there was one family in town but three years later, Harriman boasted 4,000 inhabitants, and the idea was to eventually create a city of 50,000, Brown said. Factories and businesses sprang up and ramshackle homes were "thrown together, sometimes in six hours" along muddy streets, he said.
Banks failed in the "Panic of 1893," and overextended investors in the land company declared bankruptcy, prompting urban development to abruptly stop for several years.
Growth proceeded slowly after 1900, Brown said. The city boasted a university – the American Temperance University – from 1893 to 1908. The college's football team had the dubious distinction of getting whipped by the University of Tennessee by UT's biggest-ever margin of victory, 104 to 0.
Harriman slowly evolved into a major railroad hub, but the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 hit the city so hard that its funeral homes at times didn't have room to accommodate all the flu victims.
Hard times arrived again with the flood of 1929, when most of the city's riverfront industries were washed away and 20 residents were killed. The Great Depression followed.
World War II and the Manhattan Project to enrich uranium for the first atomic bomb in the nearby secret city, Oak Ridge, helped revive Harriman, along with construction of TVA's Kingston steam plant.
Harriman's heyday came after the annexation of South Harriman in 1961. The city then had a "bustling downtown," Brown said, with a population of some 9,000.
The latest census indicates there are 6,300 residents of "The Town that Temperance Built," Brown said.
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