JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Most locals likely know of Johnson City’s nickname of “Little Chicago,” but how did the city earn that label?
It started during the Prohibition era.
“So there’s no doubt that there was illicit alcohol around in the 1920s in Johnson City and afterward,” said Dr. Tom Lee, an associate professor of history at East Tennessee State University. “But, you know, I don’t doubt that there would have been elements of the criminal underworld.”
Back then, the city’s small police force struggled to keep up with rapid population growth, according to Lee. The result: more crime and a sense of “wildness” in Johnson City.
“So you kind of had this rowdy atmosphere and a period where with Prohibition, you had the sort of gangsters in Chicago and elsewhere,” Lee said.
Local legend has it that notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone had ties to Johnson City. While Lee doesn’t rule that possibility out, he says it is hard to believe that rumor.
“He had a house in Miami and the train schedules of the day, for instance, had he chosen to go by train or the roads by car, would not necessarily have taken him through Johnson City.”
The legacy of “Little Chicago” has continued to live on. The Little Chicago Festival was a popular event for years. There are also businesses like the Little Chicago Tattoo Company and Capone’s.
Ninety years after prohibition ended, downtown Johnson City is now home to multiple (legal) breweries and other places to grab a beer.