The town of Athens, Tennessee, was created in 1822, on land obtained from William Lowry and Joseph Calloway. Originally the town boundaries consisted of 35 acres bordering on the Eastnalle Creek, which was used as a source of water power to operate the various mills that eventually located along the creek. Important in the location of the town was a healthy water supply, which was provided by a large spring near the center of town.
Nine commissioners were designated to lay out the town in lots and to name the various streets. Some of the original names remain today; others have been renamed, while other no longer exist. The town received its official name on August 23, 1822, by the Tennessee legislature. Local lore gives credit to Elijah Hurst, one of the commissioners, for suggesting the name Athens for it fitted a description of the ancient city of Greece, which he had read about.The following year, 1823, the county seat was moved from its original location at Calhoun in order to make the seat of government more accessible to the majority of McMinn countians.
Athens had a population of 500 and according to the 1830 census, was a thriving community consisting of 4 lawyers, 4 divines (ministers), 4 doctors, 10 stores (3 more than Knoxville), 1 tavern, 1 printing office, 1 painter, 2 hatters, 2 tailors, 2 shoemakers, 2 tanners, 2 silversmiths, 1 wagon maker, 2 mills, 1 factory and a male and female academy.
By the early 1830s, Athens had a newspaper, which was published over the next several years by various publishers and under different names. It was not until 1848, when Samuel Ivins, came to town and established the Post to promote the development of a railroad that Athens would have a permanent newspaper, with the exception of the period from September 1863 to December 1867, when the Post ceased publication because Editor Ivins was imprisoned by the Union army for his pro-Southern stance. Eventually the Post would become the Daily Post Athenian, one of the oldest newspapers in Tennessee.
Two major events occurred prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 that greatly affected Athens. The first was the coming of the railroad in 1851. The first railroad construction in the state of Tennessee was commenced about 1.5 miles south from the center of town near the vicinity of the present day Sullins Cemetery. Construction began in 1837 but was halted in 1839 because of financial and legal problems of the Hiwassee Railroad, the company that had been granted a charter by the state to build a rail line from Dalton, Georgia, to Knoxville, a distance of 98 miles. When work halted, the only accomplishment at that time was 66 miles of roadbed, a bridge across the Hiwassee River at Calhoun, and a headquarters building on Jackson Street, across from Mars Hill Presbyterian Church built by Samuel Clegg (Cleage).
Because of economic conditions, it was not until 1849 that construction of the rail line was resumed, this time under the name of East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. By mid 1851, the line reached Athens. The town benefited greatly from the coming of the railroad, which helped local businesses secure goods much quicker, and at a considerable savings in freight cost. It also stimulated such services as hotels and hack rentals as it brought salesmen to town to sell their wares to local businessmen and merchants in the surrounding countryside.
The second major event to occur prior to the Civil War was the establishment of a college in Athens in 1857 by the southern branch of the Methodist Church. Known as the Athens Female College, the institution also became the center of cultural activities and quickly became a source of great pride to Athenians. During the Civil War, the college was forced to suspend operation in 1863, but re-opened in 1867 with a new name, East Tennessee Wesleyan University, under the control of the northern branch of the Methodist Church. Through the years the college has operated under several names including Grant Memorial University, the Athens School of the University of Chattanooga, and since 1925, Tennessee Wesleyan College. Throughout its long history, despite periodic financial crunches, TWC has provided a quality liberal arts education to thousands of men and women, many of whom have distinguished themselves in virtually every field of endeavor.
The Civil War period was an extremely difficult time for Athenians. While no major battles were fought in or around Athens, the town was occupied by both Confederate and Union forces. Like other East Tennesseans, Athenians were divided in their loyalties, which resulted in hostilities between family members and friends that lasted for years in some cases. Many Athenians fought for both North and South. Economically the town suffered tremendously and it would be years before it fully recovered, but through hard work and perseverance the region eventually overcame the devastation caused by the war.
Following the period of recovery from the war, some industrialization took place in the northern section of Athens, with textiles and furniture leading the way. In anticipation of a much greater boom than actually occurred, a streetcar was constructed in the late 1880s connecting North Athens to the downtown area. The streetcar, which was pulled by two mules, ran from the train depot in North Athens, down Jackson Street, circled the downtown area, and then went back up Jackson. The streetcar ceased operation after only a few years due to lack of patronage.
The 1920s saw an expansion of business and industry, which resulted in a diversification of the local economy. This diversification helped Athens weather the greatest depression in American history during the 1930s. Fortunately, none of the three banks had to close their doors during the depression.
During the early 1920s, the first concrete streets made their appearance in downtown Athens. The main streets around and leading from the courthouse square were the first to receive the hard surface.
Although enormous changes have occurred since World War II, Athens still retains a certain amount of charm, which has been a part of its heritage through the years. There are a number of quaint, historic homes scattered about the city, a constant reminder of bygone days. The downtown business area, with its quaint buildings and shops, also offers a glimpse of yesteryear when things were simpler and life was less hectic.
Bill Akins – County Historian