The name is a simplification of "King's Port," originally referring to the area around Ross's Landing. The city, along with Bristol, Tennessee, and Johnson City, Tennessee, is part of the Tri-Cities, Tennessee/Virginia Metro Area. It is also commonly included in what is known as the "Mountain Empire," which includes a portion of southwest Virginia and the mountainous counties in Tennessee to the east.
Re-chartered in 1917, Kingsport was an early example of a "garden city," designed by city planner and landscape architect John Nolen of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It carries the nickname The Model City from this plan, which organized the town into areas for commerce, churches, housing, and industry. The result included some of the earlier uses of traffic circles (roundabouts) in the U.S. Kingsport was among the first municipalities with a city manager form of government and a school system built on a model developed at Columbia University. Most of the land on the river was devoted to industry. Indeed, most of Long Island is now occupied by Eastman Chemical Company.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 45.0 square miles (116.6 km²), of which, 44.1 square miles (114.1 km²) of it is land and 0.9 square miles (2.4 km²) of it (2.07%) is water.
There were 19,662 households out of which 26.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 48.5% were married couples living together, 12.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 35.7% were non-families. 32.5% of all households were made up of individuals and 14.7% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.22 and the average family size was 2.80.
In the city the population was spread out with 21.7% under the age of 18, 6.5% from 18 to 24, 26.2% from 25 to 44, 25.3% from 45 to 64, and 20.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 42 years. For every 100 females there were 84.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 79.4 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $30,524, and the median income for a family was $40,183. Males had a median income of $33,075 versus $23,217 for females. The per capita income for the city was $20,549. About 14.2% of families and 17.1% of the population were below the poverty line, including 24.9% of those under age 18 and 13.0% of those age 65 or over.
While no college or university houses its main campus within the city, Northeast State Technical Community College, East Tennessee State University, and University of Tennessee have branch campuses in Kingsport.
The current chief is Gail Osborne.
On September 12, 1916, Kingsport residents demanded the death of circus elephant Mary (a five ton Asian elephant who performed in the Sparks World Famous Shows Circus) for her killing of a city hotel worker named Walter "Red" Eldridge, who was hired the day before as an assistant elephant trainer by the circus.
On the evening of September 12, Eldridge was killed by Mary in Kingsport, Tennessee while taking her to a nearby pond to splash and frolic and drink. There are several accounts of his death but the most widely accepted version is that he prodded her behind the ear with a hook after she reached down to nibble on a watermelon rind. She went into a rage, snatched Eldridge with her trunk, threw him against a drink stand and deliberately stepped on his head, crushing it. One of his ears was never found.
The details of the aftermath are confused in a haze of sensationalist newspaper stories and folklore. Most accounts indicate that she calmed down afterward and didn't charge the onlookers, who were chanting, "Kill the elephant!" Apparently, within minutes, a local blacksmith tried to oblige, firing more than two dozen rounds at the elephant with little effect. Newspapers published claims that Murderous Mary had killed several workers in the past and noted that she was larger than the world famous Jumbo the elephant. Mary was impounded by the local sheriff, and the leaders of several nearby towns threatened not to allow the circus to visit if Mary was included. The circus owner, Charlie Sparks, reluctantly decided that the only way to quickly resolve the potentially ruinous situation was to hold a public execution. On the following day, a foggy and rainy September 13, 1916, she was transported by rail to Erwin, Tennessee where a crowd of over 2,500 people (including most of the town's children) assembled in the Clinchfield railroad yard to watch the hanging.