The post-war 1950's were a boom time for Memphis, and Downtown was the financial and commercial heart of the City and the Mid-South. The Memphis riverfront was still a working port although the industrial abuse and exploitation of the bluffs had begun to subside. As early as 1923 plans for “riverfront development” had been proposed, the most prescient being that of Harland Bartholomew, an engineer and planner who would shape Memphis for decades to come. His “Plan for the Riverfront and The Island” proposed extending Court Avenue across a bridge to Mud Island and a stretch of neo-classical façades along Front Street. In the next decade the “wasteland of garbage and trash” that was the lower bluffs was cleaned up and replaced by Riverside Drive. The riverfront was beginning to take the form we see today.
However, if you made your way down the cobblestones and put your foot in the current you would not have communed with the great Mississippi. The water moving between your toes would have originated not in Lake Itsca in Minnesota, augmented by the watershed of mid-America, but in a spring in the northeast Mississippi hills. From there it would have meandered north into Tennessee, past LaGrange and Moscow, Collierville, and Germantown and through the city of Memphis itself. Along the way it would have passed a number of industrial plants, leaving with a souvenir from each in the form of raw and often toxic waste: chemicals such as chlordane from Velsicol, spent process water from Buckeye Cellulose, and the appalling residue from slaughter houses. And, not far upstream from you, just after the river made an abrupt left turn, the entirety of the sewage of north Memphis was dumped directly into it. This was no Father of Waters, this was nature’s alimentary canal, this river native Americans called Nashoba and we called the Wolf.
Until September 22, 1960, the river that flowed past Downtown was the Wolf River; on that day the Wolf was diverted to empty into the Mississippi (actually it was into the Loosahatchie Chute but that’s another story) at the north end of Mud Island and the river was dammed, forming the still-water harbor we have today. Why was it done? It seems somewhat backward today but the sole reason was to spare the Downtown riverfront the incredible stench that emanated from the river, not to mention the sight of the jetsam of industrial “progress” and human bodily function and endeavor. Backward because it apparently did not occur just to keep the river clean rather than keep it out of range of the visual and olfactory senses. This was the ’50s after all and plants employed people. The “environment” was just a convenient place to throw our stuff after we were finished with it; we were too busy building up to worry about using up and messing up. The wisdom of the day was that the Wolf diversion was a solution to a problem – a stinky riverfront; but, enlightened as we are today, we know that the real problem was the use of the river as a sewage ditch, and that the diversion was only just that.
Well, with a little help from the EPA, much of the dumping of raw waste into the Wolf has ended and, with Memphis operating state-of-the-art solid waste and water treatment facilities, the reasons for the diversion have all but been eliminated. However, restoration of the Wolf ’s natural flow is highly unlikely; to the contrary, a 2001 proposal was to build another dam (“land bridge”) at the southern end of the harbor, creating a lake. That concept was abandoned and instead we built Beale Street Landing – a much fancier place to dip your toes into Downtown’s other river.