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To identify and document events, individuals, institutions, buildings, historical sites and other resources that have given our town a distinctive character. To further the possibilities for historical understanding, heritage tourism, business opportunities and community pride, while encouraging public and organizational participation. We seek to obtain the support from local, corporate, state and federal partnerships, for the preservation, conservation and interpretation of the history of the Town of Erwin.
The Town of Erwin
By A. Christine Tipton
The history of Erwin, as a town, began with the creation of Unicoi County in 1875. The new county, created from Washington and Carter Counties, had become functional by January of 1876, and needed a central location for a county seat. The site that was decided upon would eventually become the thriving and beautiful Town of Erwin.
The area had a long history before the beginning of the town. We cannot know how long the land had been occupied by Native Americans, but we do know that the Cherokee were the last tribe to use the region as their hunting grounds. Residents of Erwin today are still discovering arrowheads in their gardens and flowerbeds.
Long hunters and settlers moved into the valley in the 1770s. Militia groups formed, taxes were collected, a church was built along North Indian Creek at its junction with the Nolichucky River and wagon roads were developed. The Linear Walking Trail in present-day Erwin meanders along where the activity took place in the late 1700s and 1800s.
Men from the area fought at the Battle of King’s Mountain in the American Revolution, in the War of 1812, and a later generation suffered the consequences of divided loyalties in the Civil War. Many of the last names from those periods can still be found on addresses in contemporary
Unicoi County and its county seat were formed during the Reconstruction era when leaders had to overcome their bitterness from the Civil War for the sake of their community.
Before becoming a town site, the area had been identified with other names for the purpose of postal designations: Greasy Cove, Unaka or Unika, and Longmire. Joseph Longmire had been a postmaster and it was on his farm, that had been purchased by David J.N. Ervin, that a large portion of the new town would be laid out.
An advertisement for land sales in a newly formed town directed potential buyers to Longmire’s on March 6, 1876. The Commissioners of Unicoi County directed the County Surveyor, David J. White to lay out the perimeters of the town with numbered lots and a reserved space for the Courthouse and Publick Square. His series of town plats were from February 6 to March 24, 1876. On his last plat of March 24, which is the official plat in the Deeds Office, the name of the town was written as Vanderbilt.
Apparently decisions had already been made about the location of the county seat when the survey directive was given to White. On February 9, donations of land were recorded from David J.N. Ervin and William and Nancy Love. On February 19, Gutheridge Garland donated land. The proceeds from the sales were to go for the construction of a courthouse and public buildings.
A total of 37 acres was offered for sale at public outcry. Ervin had donated 30 acres, with one half of the sale to go to him, the Love’s had donated 5 acres and Garland donated 2 acres. On the day of the sale, 47 of the lots with different sizes of acreage sold for prices ranging from $75 to $300.
The name of the Post Office was changed from Longmire to Vanderbilt on March 27, 1876. Sawmills, blacksmiths and merchants were ready for business. The first meeting of officials in a new courthouse was on July 3, 1876.
The town’s name of Vanderbilt would last for three years. According to local lore, the name Vanderbilt was chosen in hopes of attracting land purchases and development from George Vanderbilt, who was rumored to have an interest in real estate in the region. When Mr. Vanderbilt purchased his property in the Asheville area, the name Vanderbilt was replaced in 1879.
On March 14, 1879, the Legislature changed the name from Vanderbilt to Ervin in honor of David J.N. Ervin. The post office name was changed from Vanderbilt to Erwin on December 5, 1879. If the difference in the names was a postal error, the mistake was one that was not corrected. For many years there was confusion between the two names and both names would be used.
The matter of an official name for the town was resolved on April 21, 1891, when a charter of incorporation was given to the Town of Erwin. The charter shows that Erwin had extended its perimeters, more than doubling the original beginnings as the county seat in 1876.
A list of qualified voters for 1891 was 69. On May 12, 1892, an elected Board of Mayor and Aldermen met to elect Daniel Calloway as the Marshal and W.T. Davis as the Recorder. There are very few records of our early history as a town in existence.
To get a feel for the time, visit the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce, located on Main Avenue and Gay Street in the J.F. Toney Building, built in 1892. This is the town’s oldest business structure. The building was the office for Toney’s newspaper, The Erwin Magnet, from 1891 to 1927, and a space for other businesses.
By 1910, the population of Erwin was 1,149 and a new era of railroads and other business developments were about to transform the look and success of Erwin. The boom times were just beginning.
Pat Alderman, Greasy Cove in Unicoi County
Pat Alderman, The Overmountain Men
William Cooper, Old Stores of Unicoi County
William Cooper, Old Log Homes of Unicoi County
William Cooper, Old Churches of Unicoi County
James A. Goforth, Erwin, Tennessee
James A. Goforth, Building the Clinchfield
James A. Goforth, When Steam Ran the Clinchfield
William W. Helton, Around Home in Unicoi County
Hilda Padgett, The Erwin Nine
Charles Edwin Price, The Day They Hung the Elephant
Viola Ruth E. Swingle, Erwin
Lou Thornberry, Remembering Old Erwin
A. Christine Tipton, Civil War in the Mountains
Unicoi County Heritage Committee, Unicoi County, Tennessee and Its People
These and other books of historical interest can be found in the J.F. Toney Memorial Public Library in Erwin. The library is located on Nolichucky Avenue and is housed in the restored Clinchfield Railroad Depot. The books are located in the Historical Room. You may contact the library at (423) 743-6533.
Mr. James A. Goforth
Erwin Town Historian