The Mighty Mississippi.
Perhaps more than anything or anyone else – Elvis or Beale, barbecue or basketball – the formidable river that gave life to the city on its banks defines who we are.
It seems appropriate, then, that the river and its relationship with Memphis should be the starting point for an exploration of the city during its bicentennial year.
What has that relationship been? How have the river’s relentless waters shaped Memphis into the city of today, and what factors will affect the symbiotic relationship going forward?
It begins with an acknowledgement that the river bows to our will, our efforts to control it, only so much. The river gives and it takes on a daily basis in its timeless dance with Memphis.
Fortified on its journey south by the Wolf and Loosahatchie rivers and Nonconnah and Cypress creeks, the Mississippi changes the city’s western boundary continually as it varies in depth up to 50 feet in a year’s time.
RON MAXEY: Memphis @ 200
Will climatic changes exacerbate these natural, never-ending fluctuations, dictating how development occurs?
The early March crest of 41.3 feet is the fourth-highest level ever recorded at Memphis. It comes eight years after the second-highest level ever recorded at Memphis – 48.3 feet in May 2011.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a “Spring Outlook” for 2019 that same month, designating two-thirds of the contiguous 48 U.S. states as facing an elevated risk of flooding.
At the same time, four of the five lowest river levels ever recorded at Memphis have been in recent years – 2012, 2000, 2001 and 2006. The lowest level ever recorded at Memphis was -10.7 feet in July 1988.
Mayors of cities and towns along the Mississippi River, a group including Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, have climate change on their political to-do list of river priorities.
The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiatives sent several of the river mayors to the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, to voice their concerns about an increased cycle of flooding and drought along the river.
“It’s real,” Mayor Lionel Johnson of St. Gabriel, Louisiana, said at the 2017 gathering. “So for me and my constituents, it’s not a debate. We know it’s real. We live it and we are trying to have our say in conversation and leadership.”
And Strickland announced in late March a proposal for a “freshwater institute” on Mud Island that would study not only the underground Memphis aquifer but also the eco-system of the Mississippi River.
The institute would have a regional mission.
The recent river flooding makes it imperative that cities in a development boom realize that flood plains are more vital than ever for flood control despite their value as land suitable for development.
The droughts and intense heat are a danger to the river ecosystem, not to mention those who farm in the river’s gift of some of the most fertile soil in the world.
Then there’s the question, climatic changes notwithstanding, of what we want the riverfront to look like.
The Memphis River Parks Partnership has proposed a Tom Lee Park plan meant to bring more Memphians to the river there and elsewhere for different experiences, ranging from the solitary to large-scale events and everything in between.
Part of that plan brought in New York-based landscape architecture firm SCAPE to put an emphasis on the park’s resiliency in the face of expected climate effects.
This resilience strategy includes elevated landscapes in some areas of the park, more permeable lawns, natural plantings, and other topography designed to guide storm water through and out of a park that has rarely been breached by the river.
A presentation on view at Beale Street Landing on a recent morning envisioned a possible Memphis riverfront of the future, or at least the Tom Lee Park portion of it.
The plan, at the center of a mediation process involving the partnership and the Memphis In May International Festival, includes more trees in a park that has no big trees and an open plain to the bluff’s edge. The park would also include distinct areas broken up by the trees as well as areas designed for daily activities on a smaller scale than the bigness of the annual monthlong festival.
Notecards dotted one section of the Beale Street Landing presentation with scribbled reactions and ideas from visitors. One cluster was in response to the evocative question: “What draws you to the river?”
“The natural power,” was the response on one note. “View of the magnificent river” on another. “Serenity.” “Sunsets.”
Joe Royer came to the river at Memphis while trying to qualify for the U.S. Olympic kayak team more than 40 years ago. On his way to a master’s in engineering, he interned for two summers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency whose jurisdiction includes the Mississippi River.
“I kind of understood the river as an engineer. I knew what a wing dike was – what a revetment was – all of the challenges of the Corps, keeping the river open to navigation and protecting, flood control issues,” said Royer, who describes himself – then and now – as “a paddler.”
He is on the river in a kayak or canoe every week – probably three times a week in the winter, more in the summer.
Royer is also the owner of Outdoors Inc. and organizer of the city’s annual canoe and kayak race on the river.
As for the constant changes in the river, that’s one of the things Royer finds alluring.
“It makes it a richer experience because it’s not always the same,” Royer said. “With the downstream current, when the wind blows out of the south it is opposing the current so the river is going to be choppy. When the wind is blowing from the north with the water, it’s going to be a whole different scene.”
Our fascination with the river
It’s not just Royer and other modern-day adventurers who wrestle with the question of what draws us to the river. Writers have long realized the river draws us to it for lots of reasons.
“The river still exerts a strange compulsion in Memphis,” Shields McIlwaine wrote in “Memphis: Down in Dixie,” a flawed Memphis retrospective published in 1948 and riddled with racist terms and stereotypes.
“It taunts some people as tall peaks lure mountain climbers,” he continued. “Now and then, on a dare, little boys test their thin arms against it and are sucked down by eddies. It comes to restless, despondent minds as escape or the way out.”
Some of the city’s most dramatic moments have played out on the Mississippi River – an ever-changing and moving stage for some of our most public and most intimate moments.
When the Big River Crossing bicycle and pedestrian boardwalk opened on the north side of the Harahan Bridge in 2016, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson met Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland at the center point with the Mississippi River below. Hutchinson acknowledged his ties to the river.
“I actually proposed to my wife underneath a sycamore by the Mississippi River on the Memphis side,” he said.
But the draw goes back much deeper in time.
At its origin, the “Bluff City” was fundamentally defined by its relationship to the river, a relationship that’s ever-evolving and at times uneasy.
The Mississippi River has brought commerce and inspiration both. It has served as a muse for enduring works of word and song, and has been serenaded from its Memphis banks by the likes of Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and countless others. Many have explored its environs with a proper humility.
We have at times polluted it with worse than plastic bottles. Memphis has sullied its ancient waters with the trafficking of the enslaved, and used it as the logistical engine of an economy fueled by their forced labor.
The Mississippi River brought Memphis into this world, its rich, wild lands safely atop the fourth Chickasaw Bluff an ideal place to forge a new city. And the river nearly took it out, its port bringing in those afflicted with yellow fever, its surrounding still waters the breeding ground for the mosquitoes who quickly made it an epidemic.
A source of awe, it can be both wonder and threat. The high bluff upon which Memphis stands protects the city from the water’s occasional rise, but the river has still been known to creep up and nip at Beale Street’s toes.
Before there was a Memphis there was a river, bearing witness to Portuguese explorers, French settlers and Chickasaw hunters, among others. In Memphis’ 200 years overlooking this Father of Waters, it’s witnessed a Civil War battle, the most deadly maritime disaster in U.S. history and even the indignity of Bud Boogie Beach.
It has seen heroes, daredevils and legends.
James Buchanan Eads, for example, walked the bottom of the Mississippi River in the 1840s with a 40-gallon whiskey barrel rigged as a diving bell. That was after a diver who worked on the Great Lakes tried and failed several times to avoid getting swept away by the treacherous river current.
Eads, a civil engineer, built a salvage business based in St. Louis that worked the river valley including Memphis. He never forgot his first dive into a river in which he couldn’t see below the surface but that he could feel.
“At 65 feet below the surface, I found the bed of the river, for at least three feet in depth, a moving mass,” Eads wrote later in excerpts used in the 1997 book “Rising Tide” by John M. Barry. “And so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface.”
He described drifting sands “like a dense snowstorm at the bottom.”
His intimate knowledge of the river made Eads a major figure in efforts to control or stabilize the river’s flow. In other words, a coexistence with the river.
Royer, the modern-day adventurer, understands that too.
“I understood that I could keep people safe even though people didn’t really believe that at first 40 years ago,” Royer said of his annual canoe and kayak race. “The river’s making a nice clockwise bend in our riverfront. The current is in the outside bend. There are no wing dikes on the Memphis side. They are all on the Arkansas side.
“When you get to the (National) Ornamental Metal Museum, the river makes a counterclockwise bend. So the wing dikes are all going to be on the Tennessee side. So I kind of figured out I can stage in the slackwater of the Wolf and people could stay along the banks.”
Royer is quick to say the river is not a place to challenge but instead to respect. While some Memphians wouldn’t think of trying to swim the river, the city’s relationship with the river early on was one that included organized swims across the river.
Harry Weirsema came to Memphis in 1914 as a civil engineer to help build the Harahan Bridge, building a cabin by the Memphis end of the bridge – where Church of the River stands today – to be close to work as well as the river.
He also swam the river on a regular basis even after he had moved further into the city.
In 1925, he found himself thrown into the river as the excursion boat he and others were aboard capsized south of the city.
Decades later, in a 1984 recorded interview with University of Memphis historian Charles Crawford, Wiersema remembered taking one big breath before he went beneath the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.
“Going down, I was thinking, ‘Well, here’s the end of my life. I’m probably never going to get to the surface because it’s an awful way down,’” he recalled.
Lee Hidinger Jr. was 5 years old and decades later remembered some parts of the ordeal very clearly, others as bits and pieces that included the smell of a damp blanket he was put under with others in a cabin by the river where he awaited transport back to Memphis.
He told university historians in a 1984 interview he jumped on his father’s back with his father telling him to hold on but not too tightly.
Weirsema surfaced with a gasp in a group of people floating with life preservers or clinging to pieces of wood from the excursion boat on which he had been a passenger. He saw a much smaller boat and a man on board calmly pulling people from the river current near him as he shared a wooden plank with two other men.
The man on the boat was Tom Lee, whose rescue of 32 passengers from the excursion boat M.E. Norman that day in May became the city’s best known river story before fading over time.
Voices of the River
An African American laborer who had rescued a group of white civil engineers and their families who were in the city for a convention, Lee was at the Rose Garden at the White House within a week of the rescue shaking hands with President Calvin Coolidge.
The Engineers Club bought Lee and his wife a house in the North Memphis community of Klondike and paid the annual taxes on the house, where they lived the rest of their lives. The city hired Lee as a sanitation worker and when he died from cancer in 1954, the city renamed Astor Park by the river in his honor with an obelisk monument describing him as “a very worthy Negro.”
Lee’s garbage route took him to a house at Vinton Avenue and Lemaster where he would talk privately with Hidinger and his father about that day on the river.
The river’s story is deep enough to obscure and hide the most dramatic true stories and create others from just a brightly colored piece of the truth.
Glenna Jenkins Green remembered the stories her father, Samuel W. Jenkins, would tell her and her friends as children in the 1930s at their East Tennessee home of a burning boat on the Mississippi River north of Memphis.
“Dad would get us on the front porch a lot of times,” Green said during a visit to Memphis in 2003. “All the kids in the neighborhood would come around. He was a big storyteller and I didn’t know if half of it was lies or the truth.”
Jenkins was a Union soldier in the Civil War who enlisted as a teenager, was captured by Confederate forces and emerged from a prisoner of war camp along the Cahaba River in Alabama to board a boat called the Sultana at Vicksburg, Mississippi, at war’s end.
Shields McIlwaine, “Memphis: Down in Dixie”
Green remembered a round scar on his shoulder that was a primitive inoculation against smallpox he got at the camp.
The Sultana had docked in Memphis on its way north from Vicksburg, severely overcrowded with more than 2,500 passengers. Most were Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison camps at the end of the Civil War that same month, April 1865. The Sultana brought word on its trip downriver to Vicksburg of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
After picking up a load of coal, the boat made it just north of the city about 2 a.m. when its boilers exploded close to the middle of the flooded river.
“He was blown out in the water and he got hold of some logs or something and floated around out there. He was burned pretty bad on his shoulders,” Jenkins said of her father. “He’d think of all of the soldiers that drowned that day and how bad they were burned and things he couldn’t do to help them.”
He and other survivors recalled struggles between the drowning and those who could have drowned but didn’t. Still others died by fire.
The estimated 1,800 who died in the Sultana’s fiery end in the chilled spring flood waters numbered more than those killed in the more famous 1912 sinking of the Titanic. The Sultana was built to hold no more than 400 people and was crammed with 2,500 people.
The dead, dying and scarred ran like a tide to and by the city, filling its hospitals and its homes on a higher ground.
It was a role the city had played before and would play after.
Where we go from here
Back in the present day, we return to the timeless question of what draws us to the river and how do we help shape what our relationship with it will be in the future, just as those past heroes shaped their own relationships.
Could high waters become more than a curiosity, and more frequently? And could this complicate the notion the riverfront as attraction, a front porch where the city can gather, and beyond just the month of May?
“We need to do a better job of water quality and litter,” Royer said. “That’s a line item to the budget that’s always, I guess, easy to overlook. Culturally, our mainstream leaders, business and political have never embraced it. I think we will have a better economic and business climate if we do embrace it more.”
The shifting of priorities and memories sounds a lot like the river itself, which seems to quickly pull old stories below its brown waters in its eternal move south or sweep them away only to have remnants of that past unexpectedly come to the surface at random times.
Case in point: In the late 1990s, a demolition crew removing two cement columns from Ensley Bottoms, the one-time site of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, came upon a metal box when they broke apart one of the columns to make it easier to move.
Inside was the Corps flag that flew on the Norman the day it capsized, with oil stains and mud from the river still caked on its faded but enduring red field. The other mementos in the time capsule included a list of those who died in the river – some whose bodies were found weeks, even months, later.
And some who were never found, known only to the river that has known Memphis since its birth.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][/et_pb_section]