Newport: A City History Shaped by Transportation

Nestled on the north side of the Great Smoky Mountains is the quiet city of Newport Tennessee. Bordered by rivers, a train track, and divided by a state and federal highway, the city can be easily overlooked. But a glance into its past reveals a historic era from the late 1700’s forward worth exploring.

Cocke County Tennessee embodies a rich history of the pioneers who settled the area. The first town, Old New Port was formed in 1799 when John Gilliland, the first settler of Cocke County, donated fifty acres of land to build the town two years after Cocke County was established. New Port was thus named because it was a new port on the French Broad River. Fines Ferry, the former crossing for the French Broad River, no longer exists, and while much has changed, a few pieces of history still remain. But this history may be told differently depending on who you speak to in the present Newport.

The O’Dell house, the oldest structure still standing, is residential and has been declared an historic site. The building dates back to 1813 and was built by Abel Gilleland, son of John Gilleland, who settled in the area in 1783. The house is the primary physical reminder of the once bustling town of Old New Port. It is a significant architectural example of the type of residence built by men of prominence in early East Tennessee and is still occupied by descendants of the original owners. Few of this type of structure can still be found in this area.

Local resident, Edward Walker was born, raised, and still lives in Newport. As the history of the area goes, Walker is as much an historian as any. A former school teacher, now retired, Walker is a fount of information.

“The railroad arrived at the tiny village of Clifton in 1867,” said Walker. “This is when the controversy to move the county seat really revved up.”

Walker says you had the Cliftonites on one side and those living in New Port on the other. Whoever had the majority on the county legislative body would vote to move the county seat back and forth between the two. This happened at least three times. Finally, in 1884 the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the county seat could be on the Pigeon River in what was the village of Clifton. The name followed and what once was Clifton became New Port. If that isn’t confusing enough, Clifton was also once known as Gorman’s Depot. But in 1884 all three converged to become the county seat with the name of Newport. The original courthouse in Newport did not survive a fire so many of the original records and photographs are lost.

By August of 1869 the railroad had extended as far east as Wolf Creek. A stagecoach was required at this point if you wanted to go to Hot Springs or Asheville. There was no crossing by railroad until 1882. The earliest existing Newport on the Pigeon map only dates back to 1887.

A discerning eye, with help from a local historian, can spot a few original buildings. The railroad tracks still run through town but are now used for freight only. The original main building of Newport Grammar School is the oldest, continually used, elementary school building in the state of Tennessee.

Walker says the town hit a boom in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Capitalists once looked to come to small towns when starting an industry. “Everyone had big ideas and talked big but wanted to build their business on the backs of the locals. The businesses would succeed but often moved elsewhere after a time.”

Following the route of state road 25E, the East Tennessee Crossing Byway is an 83-mile national scenic byway that links Cumberland Gap and to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The drive follows the old river road pathway to Asheville and Hot Springs, and runs directly through the town of Newport.

The design plan and completion of Interstate 40 cut a path through Cocke County and Newport. As with most highway system builds, downtowns lost their sense of purpose and direction when industry, and then commerce fled to the areas along highways. Newport was no different.

But Walker says the town is making a comeback. “Downtown Newport looks better now than it has for some time,” said Walker. “We have new businesses coming to town.”

Following the lead of many larger cities, Newport is finding its way back to purpose with the renaissance of new businesses.  Newport makes for a great stopover for a cup of coffee, an ice cream treat, or a short walk around downtown to view the remaining historic buildings before trekking on to the Great Smoky Mountains.


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