Upland Chronicles: Harrisburg was once a thriving community

Apr. 29, 2013 @ 03:24 PM

Once the center of a thriving crossroads community, Harrisburg Covered Bridge is the only remaining structure in the community of Harrisburg that was composed of several commercial businesses including Umbarger Mill and a general store.

Early settlers found a spring, a stream with enough fall for a mill and good land for clearing. Although others lived there previously, Major John S. McNutt and his wife Elizabeth Brabson McNutt established a plantation along the East Fork of the Little Pigeon River around 1845. The property was a gift from Elizabeth’s’ father, John Brabson ll of Boyd’s Creek.

On June 22, 1859, a post office named Harrisburgh was established in the community. John Murphy was appointed as the first postmaster. Discontinued in 1866, the post office reopened in 1874 and the spelling was changed to Harrisburg in 1893.

By the time the Civil War began, McNutt had built a mill and a mill dam. Known as McNutt’s Bridge, a crude wooden bridge was constructed and maintained by the county.

As the war continued, McNutt, a Confederate officer, and his neighbor Dr. Robert Hodsden, an ardent Unionist, sold saltpeter to the confederate army which was removed by employees from a cave located on Hodsden’s Rose Glen Plantation. Hodsden was a brother-in-law to McNutt’s wife. The mine was constructed by carpenters with 6,500 feet of lumber supplied by McNutt.

On Jan. 27, 1864, the Battle of Fair Garden was fought over eight miles stretching from Dandridge to the Little Pigeon River. The action encompassed Harrisburg where numerous soldiers lay dead when the fighting ceased.

A decade after the Civil War ended a flood washed away McNutt’s dam, mill and bridge during a major flood in February, 1875.

By this time McNutt had exchanged farms with James Alexander Umbarger of Bland County, Virginia and moved his family there. Umbarger wasted no time rebuilding.

Meanwhile Evan Early and his family relocated to Sevier County. Elbert Stephenson Early and his brother, William Early who were sons of Evan established a carpentry business near Harrisburg known as Early Brothers. William Early married Sarah, a daughter of Alexander Umbarger.

One of Early Brothers’ first projects was to rebuild the bridge which was named Harrisburg Covered Bridge and still stands today. Umbarger operated the water-powered grist mill and a general store until his death in 1900.

The grist mill was located on the south side of the dam and a saw mill was on the opposite side where material was sawed for the new bridge. At that time the main road connecting Sevierville and Newport ran through the community. In earlier times the same path was frequently used by “drovers” leading livestock to various markets.

The general store was a social gathering place for men in the community. The proprietors sold necessities such as groceries, hardware, coal oil, and cloth along with other items including shoes, tobacco and snuff. In 1900 the store was purchased by twin brothers, William and Gates Marshall.

Soon afterwards the general store and grist mill was purchased by A. C. Layman and the store was known as Layman Brothers. 15 years of prosperity followed. By 1910, the covered bridge was 35 years old and the roof was in need of repair which was carried out with financing by the county.

During the schools terms of 1900 and 1901 Steve and Berta Hines, son-in-law and daughter of Alexander Umbarger, sponsored a school. The only teacher was Miss Alice Deaderick of Knoxville.

In 1915, the county court decided to improve the old dirt road and extend it all the way to Jefferson County. The new road bypassed Harrisburg by one fourth mile. Soon businesses began to fail.

Throughout its history, Harrisburg was served several respected physicians. Dr. Robert Hodsden who lived at neighboring Rose Glen Plantation made house calls in Harrisburg from 1845 until his death in 1864.

After attending medical college in Nashville, Dr. Fred S. Caton set up a medical practice at Harrisburg in 1887. After practicing in Harrisburg for several years he moved to Sevierville and formed a partnership with Dr. P.A. Wynn. They also built up a profitable drug store trade in Sevierville.

Dr. John Edward Elder moved to Harrisburg from Jefferson County. Dr. Elder traveled horseback to communities as far away as Gatlinburg, Greenbrier and Kodak. He was credited with diagnosing the first case of appendicitis in Sevier County and served on the prestigious U. S. Pension board.

Dr. Elder and his wife, Melvinia Rogers Elder raised a family of six children in Harrisburg. He practiced medicine there until his untimely death in 1903 at the age of 41.

Dr. John Willis Ogle who was born and raised in the mountains near Pigeon Forge began his medical practice at the age of twenty-one in the Harrisburg Community, where he met and married Mary Blanche Wayland in 1908.

Shortly after his marriage he moved to Pigeon Forge and built an office near his home. He bought Five Oaks Farm in 1924 and moved his office to the First National Bank Building in Sevierville. In later years he moved his office back to Five Oaks Farm.

When Dr. John W. Ogle moved away his brother Dr. Ashley practiced in the community for a few years.

Amazingly, the old covered bridge has survived. In 1952 Bill Baker and the county road crew stabilized the old wooden structure by placing at the center of the truss a concrete pier.

In the 1970s the century-old bridge had deteriorated and was on the verge of demolition; however the Daughters of the American Revolution raised funds to save the historic bridge. Furthermore, the DAR was successful obtaining its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Through a grant from the National Covered Bridge Preservation Program and through the Federal Highway Administration and TDOT, Sevier County was able to further the efforts of maintaining the historic bridge.

Driving across the 137-year-old bridge today, it is hard to imagine the bustling community of Harrisburg that one flourished there.

— Carroll McMahan is the special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce. The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics or have comments, please contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or email to cmcmahan@scoc.org; or Ron Rader at 604-9161 or email to ron@ronraderproperties.com.