Memphis and the Mississippi

Memphis TN was the western side of a plot of land called the Jackson Purchase, back in 1819. President Andrew Jackson met with two local investors, James Winchester and John Overton in May of that year to found the new community to be called Memphis, named after the capital city of Egypt. The perch on top of a bluff protected it from a roaming river that likes to change its course every so often.

Its place beside the Mississippi River gained it some importance as a trading port, and a crossing point on the river. It was established on land bought from the Chickasaw Indians, long the dominant tribe in the area. Cotton and hardwood came to be traded here, in such volume that it became the world capital of the cotton and hardwood trade, a title it has held for many decades.

In the 1950’s, when the Interstate Highway system came into being, thought was given to straightening out some curves of the river at Memphis.  This could control the width, keep it to one size. To do this, they made the channel a long, gentle curve going into the area. The old channel was filled in with dikes and jetties to slow the flow of the water in the old channel. Then they cut out a large swath right through an Island to create the new channel. The skinny strip of land that now houses the Harbor Town community is a small portion of the original, called Mud Island. What originally created it was a sunken gunboat, a victim of Union forces in the Civil War Battle of Memphis. Silt collected around the boat and created the island.

Something that always confused this writer as a kid was a relief map of Memphis in 1937, located in a room at the local museum, the Pink Palace. It showed the river going in two directions south of where the railroad and car bridges are now. What had happened after that time of the map was the diversion of the stream going southeast, making the river go west. The city claimed the land that had been in the middle as President’s Island. It became an industrial port along its east side, with two roads following the curvature of the land. Most of President’s Island was left as part of the river’s flood basin, land it could cover when flood season came. In the 2010 flood, the river tried to create another channel in that area, but the Corps of Engineers kept that under control by maintaining the channel.

With the Mississippi River at Memphis, most of its water comes from the Ohio River basin, which drains the Midwest and the Tennessee River valley. The Mississippi is organized in two parts, Upper and Lower Mississippi. The Upper Mississippi River flows from its source to Cairo Illinois, and the Lower Mississippi from that point downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. The Upper Mississippi can have a major flood, with considerable property damage, etc., and the water coming from it won’t even put the river at Memphis up to its flood plain. But let the Ohio River get loaded up, and Memphis sees water back to the levee, 2 miles west of downtown Memphis.

I could go on about the river and the management thereof, but the absolute best piece of work written about that is a book called Rising Tide, by John Barry. He covers river management from Civil War days onward, in exhaustive detail. It goes at length into events happening and various cities’ reactions to it, during the first half of the 20th Century, up and down the river. Consult the book for details and give yourself a month or more to read it.

Memphis loves being on a hillside called the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, which protects most of the city. Wolf River, a tributary joining just upstream, got flooded with backwaters of the Mississippi, added to its own water, and the city had to erect a floodwall along its northern side. Some of the wall is still in place. Further upstream, a private school football field became a large water polo arena during flood season.

When the river is in the 40-foot range, some places become accessible by water that aren’t at other times, and some other places that usually are accessible at normal river levels are underwater. You could drive along Riverside Drive in front of the city and be at eye level with the Memphis Queen fleet while in your car. In 2010, Beale Street at Riverside was underwater. Half of the city’s riverfront park, Tom Lee Park was underwater. The park was expanded in 1991 with a major infill project that pulled silt from the river bottom and protected it from the river with large rocks. It more than doubled the park area.

Yeah, Memphis enjoys its river view, water everywhere. But it hates the river flooding up in its backyard.

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