According to legend, native Americans of the Chickasaw tribe lined the old Indian trail now called Riverside Drive to catch their first, anxious glimpses of Hernando DeSoto as the explorer’s boats drifted down the Mississippi River. Almost four centuries later, wealthy Memphians parked their buggies and carriages along Riverside Drive to watch the fierce Civil War battle between the Union and Confederate gunboats taking place at the city’s doorstep.
And in the twentieth century, Charles Lindbergh used Riverside Drive as an impromptu landing strip for his famous plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, while visiting Memphis as part of a coast-to-coast promotion for his solo flight across the Atlantic.
Actually, none of that happened. I just made it up.
But you probably believed it, because Riverside Drive seems to have been such a permanent fixture on our waterfront. In fact, it’s a relatively recent addition to our city. And ever since the roadway opened in 1935, Riverside Drive has surely caused more problems than any other street in Memphis, including, most recently, the
civic flap brought on by the decision to close the drive for a complete renovation. Businesses protested that they weren’t given enough warning, and some citizens worried that the refurbishing of the drive would damage the river bluffs it borders.
But this isn’t the first time the drive has been the center of a problem; indeed, Riverside Drive has always been controversial. But then, what do you expect from a road that was built on piles of garbage?
When our city’s founders drew up the initial plans for Memphis in the early 1800s, they included a public promenade that would stretch along the bluffs, intended to be an open area for walking and leisure. Today’s Front Street, as the name implies, was laid out as the closest street to the waterfront.
Over the years, however, that early promenade gradually disappeared, with acres of land eventually covered by the old Custom House (later the post office and now the University of Memphis law school), the Cossitt Library, and other buildings along the river. What was worse, a growing number of businesses backed up to the river and used the banks as a dumping ground for their refuse. By the turn of the last century, the city even began operating a public dump along the bluffs.
In the early 1900s, riverboat pilots on the Mississippi knew they were drawing near Memphis by the smell. As boats drifted closer, passengers had a memorable first impression of Memphis — buildings and houses that seemed to be perched on top of a huge landfill, a mountain of cans, paper, household waste, and rusting junk that sloped from the river banks up to the edge of the bluffs. The piles of garbage stretched along the waterfront from the cobblestoned public landing at the foot of Beale Street all the way to the base of the Frisco Bridge downstream.
The area became not only unsightly, but unsafe. Years of neglect had made the riverbanks susceptible to erosion and minor cave-ins, and over the years small pieces of the bluffs had crumbled and broken off.
In 1922, the earth dropped out from under a Frisco Railroad locomotive pulling several cars along the bluffs near what is now South Bluffs. The engine overturned and tumbled into the river, pulling large strips of track with it. Fortunately, the train’s crew jumped out in time and no one was injured.
Four years later, a more dramatic event took place. On July 25, 1926, workers at the Tennessee Brewery near Butler discovered deep, yawning fissures in the bluffs behind their building, running parallel to the river. Engineers called to the scene were alarmed to find that the ground there had sunk almost a foot. Others reported ominous rumbling noises coming from deep underground.
Businesses in the area rushed to empty their warehouses and save their property. There was no time. Suddenly, a chunk of the bluffs almost three blocks long plunged 50 feet into the river, taking with it houses, railroad tracks, and the entire West Kentucky Coal Company.
After the dust settled, those brave enough to peer over the brink saw crumpled buildings, twisted railroad tracks, and crushed molasses tank cars in a jumbled mass at the very edge of the river below. Some buildings had remained level as they dropped, and a shovel left propped against a house stayed that way all the way down.
“God has just done set His foot right down on this here earth,” an old woman who lived nearby told the newspapers. “Yes, He’s just stepped on it.”
Portions of the bluff continued to cave in throughout the day, and the area had to be roped off to control the thousands of spectators who wanted to see the spectacle and stand as close to the edge as they dared.
It took weeks to clear away the wreckage, and damage was finally estimated at more than $400,000. Most of the businesses destroyed in the slide chose to rebuild in other locations, and insurance companies reportedly refused to cover property along the bluffs.
Clearly, something had to be done. What is not so clear is who can take credit for what turned out to be the solution — Riverside Drive.
The story goes like this: Memphis Mayor Watkins Overton and political boss E.H. Crump were standing in Confederate Park one evening in the 1920s, surveying the Memphis waterfront, when both were almost overcome with the noxious fumes drifting from the dump. Years later in a newspaper interview, Overton recalled, “A wall of smoke and evil-smelling fumes from the almost continuously burning trash piles made the riverfront desolate by day and the harbor of bad odors at night.”
He and Crump discussed how to improve the situation. “Out of this conversation came the plan to make the Memphis riverfront something of which the city could be proud,” Overton told the newspaper at the time.
So Mayor Overton always claimed Riverside Drive was his idea. Others give credit to a man from St. Louis, Harland Bartholomew. In the 1920s, Bartholomew — a St. Louis city planner — was brought to Memphis to prepare a master plan for our city (see “From the Archives” on page 64). Among other problems, he took a dim view of Memphis’ waterfront, noting “its disorder and general shabbiness.”
One of his recommendations was for a parkway system that would encircle the city. Such a loop would have required the addition of some form of riverfront boulevard to tie in with the existing North and South Parkways. The master plan he furnished included a rendering of the proposed new waterfront, which showed a huge, classically styled promenade along the riverfront adorned with row upon row of Roman arches.
Perhaps credit for the version of Riverside Drive that was eventually constructed should instead go to one Kenneth Markwell, the harbor engineer who, around the same time, allegedly came up with the notion of placing a roadway at the foot of the bluffs instead of on top, as other plans had suggested.
Regardless of who conceived them, the plans for Riverside Drive that were eventually adopted provided a solution to two separate problems: how to reinforce the bluffs at Memphis, and how to introduce a major new north-south traffic artery into Downtown
Construction began in 1930, after an enormous battle and plenty of red tape. After all, this project linked private land owners, the city government, the federal government, the Illinois Central and Frisco railroads, and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (who were responsible for maintaining the river channel). Not surprisingly, each of those groups expected some of the others to pay for the work.
Mayor Overton eventually persuaded the federal government to pay for the stabilization of the river bluffs, which was the first requirement. Starting in 1930, the Corps of Engineers wove willow limbs into a huge mat some 3,000 feet long by 300 feet wide, at the time the largest in the world. This was sunk in the river along the banks from Calhoun (now J.O. Patterson) to Talbot to keep the current from undercutting the bluffs. An inspection two years later showed Old Man River had still managed to tear holes in the mat, so it was covered with a thick layer of concrete, which was extended another 50 feet up the banks.
While they were laying this mat, the construction crew discovered the old locomotive that had tumbled into the river in 1922. It was impossible to raise it, so they covered it with the mat. It’s still there today.
At the same time, the Memphis Harbor Commission began the task of grading the slopes, creating a berm or shelf some 60 feet wide that would hold the roadway. Much of the dirt used in filling the highway base came from the excavation for the then-new Sterick Building under construction. Gaps along the riverbank were filled in to form Jefferson Davis (now Mississippi River) Park and Astor (now Tom Lee) Park. The grading work, which required moving more than a billion pounds of dirt and placing some 110,000 square yards of sod, was completed in 1931, and the bluffs were allowed to settle for a year before beginning road construction.
The wait turned out to be a good idea. Because of settling, the final roadway had to be redesigned four times before actual construction began, and the edge of the present road was actually planned as the center. The shifting river bluff was a harbinger of problems to come.
Road construction, paving, curbs, railings, and streetlights were completed by the city engineering department, with funding provided by the federal government’s Public Works Administration. Total construction costs eventually exceeded $1 million, a tremendous expenditure in those days, which prompted local newspapers to brag about the new road as “the most costly highway in the world.”
Riverside Drive finally opened with great fanfare on March 28, 1935. Thousands of Memphians jammed the bluffs to watch the opening ceremonies, staged at the foot of Monroe. Color guards from the American Legion and the R.O.T.C. Corps stood at attention while John B. Edgar, chairman of the Harbor Commission, described the construction feats demanded by the new road. Major W.H. Hoge of the Corps of Engineers expressed his belief that “Memphis now has the most beautiful waterfront on the river.”
Mayor Overton took the platform and declared, “Memphis is so situated geographically that if we remain alert we can develop … transportation systems to the commercial and industrial benefit of our people, and from these benefits we will have more payrolls, more jobs, and more wealth.” It seems that “America’s Distribution Center” isn’t such a new idea, after all.
The mayor “accepted” the new road on behalf of the city and said, “We have not only completed a beautiful scenic highway, but we have protected millions of dollars’ worth of property, eradicated a menace to health, and erased Memphis’ poorest advertisement, a dump and garbage heap in its front yard.”
When the speeches finally ended, Nancy Lee Overton, the 9-year-old daughter of the mayor, snipped a white ribbon to open the new road. Flanked by locomotives rolling on tracks on the bluffs above, a parade of more than 300 cars slowly moved south down Riverside Drive. They were escorted by towboats and pleasure craft in the river, an airplane and seaplane buzzing overhead, and even a Greyhound bus — all part of a public-relations stunt to link the new drive with the other major avenues of transportation.
The convoy rolled as far south as Georgia Avenue, then turned around and headed back north to end the opening ceremonies. The next day, hundreds of other Memphians turned out to drive along the new 8,800-foot-long roadway. From their cars, they could see a wide, flat boulevard that stretched almost straight across the treeless riverfront. That view was soon to change.
As soon as Riverside Drive opened, the Men’s Garden Club of Memphis planted 100 ginkgo trees and 50 flowering crabapple trees along the roadway. A few years later, the Memphis Park Commission added a border of magnolias, some of which still remain, crape myrtles, and rose bushes. After World War II, the Memphis City Beautiful Commission started the Dogwood Trail along Riverside, with trees planted as memorials.
Besides the dogwoods, another distinctive feature of Riverside Drive first made its appearance about this time — its undulating “roller coaster” ride. Because the section south of Beale had been laid mostly on landfill, it was especially prone to shifting and sinking. Once, a chunk near present-day John B. Edgar Point dropped eight inches in one night, and other portions of the roadway began drifting several inches towards the river. What was originally a gentle slope at the curve at Ashburn Park developed over several years into a dangerously steep 15-foot drop.
Landfill wasn’t the only culprit. Tests indicated that water in the subsoil was also causing the slipping. In the 1950s perforated drains were installed to collect water in the subsoil, and these reduced the settling over the years but did not eliminate it.
There were other problems with the road as well. The curve at Tom Lee Park caused a high number of accidents over the years, as did the open drainage ditch on the east side of the roadway. In 1970, this curve was straightened slightly and a 10-foot emergency lane added to the roadway in that area.
All these minor repairs over the years were merely Band-aid solutions; it became clear that something major had to be done.
The problem? No one wanted to commit to a major repair project, because the future of Riverside Drive itself — that “beautiful scenic highway” — was uncertain. As early as 1958, plans emerged to turn the road into a high-speed traffic artery reaching into downtown Memphis. Other proposals came out over the years that would have changed the original look of Riverside Drive — and required a total rebuilding of the highway. Meanwhile, the condition of the roadway steadily worsened.
Finally, in 1990, the city decided to repair the roadbed — in its present form — once and for all. “The vertical alignment of the road has changed drastically,” says City Engineer James Collins, supervisor of the renovation project, which will cost a total of $2 million. “What we are doing right now is bringing the elevation of the road back to a point very close to the original elevation, so some of the big dips and humps will be taken out. We’re also going in there and digging out some of the trash and garbage that’s down in the roadway, to keep that settlement from happening.”
In addition to construction on the roadbed itself, the city plans to fill in the low-lying, sandy beach on the west side of the drive off John B. Edgar Point. “There are two phases to that project, and the first is what you [can see] now,” says Collins, who explains that the beach, which comprises 20 acres and lies to the south of Tom Lee Park, was needed as additional weight to reinforce the foot of the bluff. For the next phase, Collins says, “we’ll add another 20 feet of topsoil and sodding, dress it up and turn it into a park area, with walkways. There will probably be some parking, but just exactly where, we don’t know. We don’t want it to turn it into a sea of asphalt. We want it to be a subtle feature.”
In recent years, Collins’ office has maintained maps that show why repairing Riverside Drive and its surrounding area is so vital: The accident rate along the drive is unusually high. The maps show each traffic incident that occurs along the drive, including times of day, street conditions, and other factors. In 1988, the section of Riverside Drive between Georgia and Beale showed 64 accidents, two of which resulted in fatalities.
“This is unusual for a stretch of open roadway,” says Collins. “Accidents are usually concentrated around intersections. And the majority of accidents occurred during rainy or wet conditions, which indicates there is a problem with the roadway itself.”
So most of the improvements in the road will be safety-related, Collins says. “We will not be adding additional lanes to the road,” he says. “It’s still going to be four lanes, but we will make those lanes a little wider. That should make people feel more comfortable and should reduce the number of sideswipe accidents we’ve seen in the past.” The city also plans to eliminate what Collins calls one of the biggest safety problems — the open drainage ditch on the east side of the roadway.
Collins decided that these changes could only be made if the road were completely closed, an unusual decision that caught some businesses on Riverside Drive by surprise.
“We weren’t given any advance notice at all,” says Jo Ellen Hoy, treasurer of Memphis Imports at 648 Riverside Drive. “We heard about it on the radio the night before.” The effects of the road’s closing have been devastating for her business. “We have our building up for sale,” she says. “It’s run all our customers off.”
“In this case, the project had already received so much publicity in the media, we felt information was getting out, so we didn’t make any extra effort,” Collins responds, adding that the city usually doesn’t close a street entirely when it’s being repaired, but in this case felt it had no choice. “For Memphis Imports, we did put up a lot of additional signs and even printed up maps they could give to their customers.”
That didn’t help, Hoy complains. “They put a sign in our driveway,” she says. “If you can find our driveway, you sure don’t need the signs. And they sent us one little map that we could copy ourselves and send out to customers.” Actually, signs pointing the way to Memphis Imports have been installed on Riverside Drive, Carolina, and Kansas.
Another company located on Riverside has also suffered. “Our business dropped 80 percent in the first month of construction,” says Allen Barton, owner of Barton’s Texaco at 694 Riverside Drive, at Carolina. “It’s come back up a bit, maybe 20 percent, but now I’m just doing 60 percent of normal.”
Barton explains that the city’s detour signs are part of his problem. “Those signs are killing me,” he says. “What I wanted them to do was put up signs that said ‘Detour at Crump. Riverside open until Carolina.’ Right now they just say ‘Detour at Crump,’ so no one knows they can still drive this far down.”
Other changes in the roadway have caused additional controversy, this time involving the bluff at the foot of Beale Street. “At Beale, we need to have a left-turn lane for southbound Riverside traffic to turn into Beale, and an exclusive right-turn lane [along Riverside],” says Collins. “Because of the close proximity [of the roadway] to the cobblestones, the only choice we had was to cut into the bluff a little bit. We’ll be building a retaining wall that will have the same finish as the wall at Confederate Park. The wall at its tallest will be six feet, so it won’t be a massive wall.”
Any cut into the bluff and retaining wall is too much, argues Reb Haizlip, a principal in the architectural firm Williamson & Haizlip, Inc. “I am troubled by what they’ve done down there,” he says. “Mayor Hackett told the DNA [Downtown Neighborhood Association] there would be no substantial cuts, no retaining wall. Now all you have to do is go down there and look. It’s like they’ve put a gaping wound down there.
“I think they’ve violated the spirit of the agreement,” Haizlip says. “A retaining wall is the worst urban violation. It’s offensive and impersonal.”
Haizlip also contends that improving Riverside Drive with turn lanes and wide shoulders will make it easier for traffic to avoid Downtown completely. “From an urban planning point of view they’re making a mistake. Traffic is good for a city; it’s good for merchants and retailers,” he says. “Since Riverside Drive has been closed, it’s really activated Front Street, since all the cars now have to go through there. But they’re turning Riverside Drive into an automobile conduit that will drain traffic from Downtown when it opens.”
One group that’s apparently not concerned with a closed Riverside Drive is the organization that runs the Great American Pyramid (now Bass Pro Shops). “We really haven’t put a lot of thought into it, so it hasn’t affected our plans,” says Mitzi Swentzell, executive vice president of marketing for The Pyramid Companies. “We’re still setting the date for our grand opening, and I think the dates for Riverside Drive are uncertain, too.”
In fact, Swentzell sees an advantage in all the construction. New ramps are being built on the north end of Riverside Drive to connect it with Interstate 40. “When [they are] finished, the ramps will help,” she says.
Riverside Drive is scheduled to reopen in the late summer of 1991, according to Collins. In the meantime, the construction has almost obliterated all traces of the former roadway. At Tom Lee Park, the asphalt has been completely pulled up, its original route revealed by a ragged path scraped through the gravel and dirt. Further south, truck and bulldozer tracks criss-cross the area, which is littered with stacks of concrete pipe, piles of gravel, and sheets of black plastic. Sometime soon, the new roadbed will begin to take shape, beginning a new era for this controversial waterfront roadway.