When one thinks of Appalachia, one does not often think of the Victorian values or the ideals of Temperance, a nineteenth century movement that sought to ban alcohol. But there a city in the region that was founded on these values, designed to be a city on a hill and a “utopia of Temperance.” That city is Harriman, TN, located about 25 miles west of Knoxville.
Founded in 1891, the history of Harriman actually begins in 1888 when the East Tennessee Land Company purchased Colonel Robert King Bird’s plantation from his widow. For $20,000 the company purchased most of Byrd’s 10,000 acres. The city was the brainchild of Frederick Gates, a former Methodist minister and ardent prohibitionist. Gates founded Harriman on the belief that Temperance and Prohibition could be commercialized for the betterment of mankind and for business profit. On Christmas Day 1889, the company began staking out the first streets and lots for the Utopia of Temperance.
Among the Company’s board of directors was Walter C. Harriman, the son of Walter Harriman, a former colonel and later general for the Union during the Civil War. He went on to serve two terms as governor of New Hampshire. During the Civil War, he and his troops camped near the site that would eventually become Harriman.
Early in 1891 pamphlets distributed across the country began advertising the new and ambitious project. On February 26, 1891, the land sale began, with newspapers and pamphlets across the nation carrying advertisements for this new utopia in the Tennessee hills. General Clinton B. Fisk, the 1888 presidential nominee of the Prohibition Party, was named head of the East Tennessee Land Company, and, due to his notoriety, his name was used extensively in advertising the land sale. Advertisements were seen throughout New York and New England, emphasizing the high moral vision of Harriman, based on its prohibition of “demon rum,” superior education, and industrial base (Fisk University in Nashville is also named in his honor). Not surprisingly, many of Harriman’s early settlers were New Englanders, eager to put their moral vision into practice.
Given his role in advertising the city, it’s no surprise that Harriman was initially to be called Fiskville. However in July or August of 1889, a chance encounter by Walter C. Harriman and other directors of the Land Company provided a new name. W. Hartwell Harriman, son of Walter C., explained the event in a 1953 letter to the Harriman Record:
…the directors were riding on horseback and visited the old Margrave House on Margrave Street where they found and elderly cripple sitting on the porch. My father asked him if he had lived there during the war and he said yes, that he had always been too crippled to enter military service.
Then he asked if he remembered when some Northern troops came down on the flats for a few days waiting to be joined by some others.
He said: “Yes, and the used to come up and get some water from the spring in the ravine back of the house. When they did, the Colonel used to come up on the porch and talk with me.
“I remember he said once that this would make a fine place for a town, and now you’ve gone and done it.”
My father asked if he remembered the Colonel’s name and he replied: “Yes, Colonel Harriman. He was a very friendly man.”
At the next directors’ meeting, it was voted to name the city Harriman.
Harriman was founded on an ambitious vision, and the city boasted the American Temperance University, public school system, vibrant industrial base, and, of course, no saloon.
Unfortunately, as it usually the case with utopian societies, Harriman never lived up to the plans envisioned by her founders. The 50,000 residents envisioned never materialized. As early as July 4, 1894 the New York Times proclaimed the city a failure:
After a year years it appeared that even with a fine hotel, good business blocks and factories, a railroad to the mines, and other rich equipments, the company did not flourish. Two years ago the investments became non-salable, although maintaining a nominal quotation at about 10. Then the company passed into a receivership.
Nevertheless, Harriman lived on. American Temperance University, opened in 1893, remained in operation until 1908. Early on it was widely respected, but by 1903 it was characterized as a “sham” and became embroiled in a controversy. It eventually closed for good in 1908, being replaced by the Mooney School that would also fail in the 1920s. Today American Temperance University is best remembered for its 1906 gridiron battle against the University of Tennessee, a game American lost 104-0 (the most points ever scored in a single game by UT).
In 1929 a flood on the Emory River washed away many businesses and did untold economic damage to the city. Nevertheless, industry lived on for years to come. Two hosiery mills and paper mill operated in Harriman for many years, but had vanished by the 1990s, taking with them jobs generations of Harriman residents had come to depend upon.
In 1993, after much soul searching, raucous debate, and intense controversy, Harriman residents voted to legalize liquor by the drink in the city, a move that surely caused the founders to turn over in the graves and represented perhaps a final defeat for the prohibitionists in their own city.
In 2003 the Harriman City School System ceased to exist, as the city schools were turned over to the Roane County School System. The Harriman city school system had served the town for more than a century but the voters decided they could no longer afford it. Thus another remnant of Harriman’s utopian past vanished.
Today, Harriman boasts a population of about 6,700. Like many small towns, it is badly in need of a downtown revitalization, as most businesses there have either closed or moved to South Harriman to be closer to Interstate 40.
About the only elements Harriman retains of its glorious past are the Temperance Building, formerly the home of American Temperance University and now city hall, and the beautiful Victorian Architecture of Cornstalk Heights, which still draws tourists from across the country.
Thus Harriman lives on, a city that serves as the successful product of the unsuccessful Temperance movement.
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Sources: Harriman: The Town that Temperance Built, by Walter T. Pulliman; TN Encyclopedia; New York Times Archives