Legends of Little Chicago: Did Al Capone really frequent Johnson City?

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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL)- It’s the roaring 1920’s in Johnson City, manufacturing is growing and the population doubles in just a decade.

“The streets would’ve been full, the sidewalks would’ve been full, lot’s of stores, lots of shopping. This was the place to come,” East Tennessee State University Associate Professor of History Tom Lee said.

At that time, Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal, but that didn’t stop the flow of booze in towns like Johnson City.

“The fact that they were surrounded by these mountains, full of moonshiners and illegal alcohol makers, and it was just a logical thing to occur,” Alan Bridwell said. After hearing stories surrounding this era for most of his life, Bridwell decided to do some extensive research of his own.

Bridwell said Johnson City was booming with access to three railroads sitting within 30 miles of two other state lines, and the city’s 12 police officers just couldn’t keep up.

“We’d heard all of our lives Johnson City reference as ‘Little Chicago’ and there been a debate where did that really come from,” Bridwell said.

Major crime marked 1920s Chicago. In both cities, “There’s alcohol, there is crime, there’s this kind of great growth and development that happens very rapidly, and there’s always the railroad,” Lee said.

Lee said he is hesitant to believe some of the legendary stories surrounding this time period, like the stories of Chicago’s most notable mobster Al Capone frequenting Johnson City.

“Is it possible that Capone may have been in Johnson City, that he may have come for connections to the illegal sale of moonshine trade or something down here? It’s possible,” Lee said.

During Bridwell’s research, he interviewed some of Johnson City’s oldest residents who were alive in the 1920s.

“Several said that yes they had heard that Al Capone was in Johnson City,” Bridwell said.

Historians say since Capone’s business here would have been illegal, he wouldn’t have left behind much of a paper trail. So other than oral history, it’s almost impossible to prove his presence in Johnson City.

Johnson City landmarks like Montrose Court are often linked to Capone, but Bridwell said the stories connect him more often with the John Sevier and Windsor Hotels.

“The most interesting story that came out was a lady that’s father played cards with Al Capone in the story, and really a lot earlier than people thought, around 1924 at the Windsor Hotel,” Bridwell said.

He said he believes Capone came to Johnson City before his fame as a field representative for the illegal alcohol industry.

“Either the stories were true, the newspapers validate how wild an era that was, or there was a whole generation of liars in Johnson City,” Bridwell said.

Lee’s specialty is in the U.S. south, specifically in Appalachia. He’s published a book on the Tri-Cities. He said for him, there’s just not enough proof to call these stories history.

“I think there are a number of factors that at least to me make me a bit skeptical about Capone in Johnson City and you know I would say if somebody has the evidence that’s going to make the case I’d be happy to see it,” Lee said.

Though Capone’s history in downtown is a little murky, Lee said one thing is for sure, “Makes for interest, it’s a way to bring people to town, it’s a way to identify a city,” Lee said.

Bridwell said for decades, people didn’t want to talk about this period of Johnson City’s history. Some people were still fearful and ashamed of the nickname Little Chicago. But that nickname did not die with the 20s, and as time went on the attitude toward it changed. Now you see nods to Little Chicago and that era downtown and the Little Chicago Festival brings thousands of people downtown each year.

If you’d like to find more information on the legends, and history behind Little Chicago, Bridwell runs the Johnson’s Depot website, detailing what he found during his research. And Tom Lee wrote a book detailing the early 1900s called The Tennessee-Virginia Tri-Cities, Urbanizing in Appalachia, 1900-1950.

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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