The bluff city was founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson. The site atop the fourth Chickasaw bluff, they felt, was an ideal place for the city they envisioned. The location provided a certain amount of natural security: it had served as a fort for early French and Spanish explorers, and the high bluffs created a natural barrier against periodic flooding from the Mississippi River. The surrounding countryside was fertile enough to support a substantial agricultural economy, and Memphis' location nearly midway between New Orleans and the Ohio Valley would make it a valuable river port and trading center.
The new city quickly lived up to those early expectations. By the late 1840s, flatboats loaded with trade goods and cotton-laden riverboats lined the riverbank; Peddlers, fur traders, gamblers, and "river rats" filled the city's hotels and saloons; and cotton merchants flocked to Front Street's Cotton Row to buy and sell the area's high-quality "white gold." Even the War between the States, during which the city spent two years under federal occupation, failed to slow its growth. When the war ended, Memphis - though still a rough~and~tumble river town known mainly for its muddy streets and lawlessness - was the South's sixth largest city with some 55,000 citizens. It was also one of the few Southern cities that had not been burned, shelled, or looted during the four-year conflict.
Luck, however, was not on Memphis' side for very long. In 1872, and again in 1878, the yellow fever epidemics devastated the city, killing more than 5,000 people, and sending another 25,000 to seek safety in other cities. As a result, land values fell drastically, and crops were left to die in the fields.
The city lost its charter, forcing it into bankruptcy. Newspapers across the state suggested that the city should be burned and abandoned. But instead of yielding to the pressures, Memphis showed the resilience and self-reliance that would mark its passage into the 20th century.
The city sold bonds and used the monies to finance a new drainage system, improve sanitation, and pave the notoriously muddy streets. It formed a merchants exchange to seek ways of diversifying the local economy, thus making it less dependent on cotton.
By the early 1900s, Memphis was one of the world's leading hardwood lumber markets, and local factories turned out a variety of goods - from hardware supplies to farm tools. But the real sign of the city's recovery lay in the confidence of its residents. The population of Memphis now stood at more than 100,000, nearly twice the pre-yellow fever census.
As Memphis made its economic comeback, history of another sort was being made on Beale Street. Beale Street in those days was a teeming neighborhood that bore little resemblance to the stately cotton merchants' mansions lining Adams Street. Beale was a simmering cultural cauldron of dice parlors, gin mills, pool halls, and bawdy houses, and its home-grown music reflected what its residents most keenly felt; the blues. W. C. Handy, a wandering black musician and composer, was the first to set down on paper the sometimes grim but always hopeful mix of field hollers, gospel songs, cotton-baling calls, and African tribal songs.
Forty years later, Beale Street and those same rhythms infected a young, aspiring musician named Elvis Aaron Presley, who would forever change the face and the sound of American popular music. The contributions of these two musical innovators made Memphis the "Home of the Blues" and the "Birthplace of Rock~and~Roll."
From 1910 until the early 1950s, the destiny of Memphis lay largely in the hands of E. H. "Boss" Crump. Though he officially served as mayor from 1910 to 1915, he was widely regarded as the unofficial mayor for nearly 40 years after that. Though in many ways it was both paternalistic and self-serving, the Crump machine is largely credited with bringing in high-paying industrial jobs, putting Memphis on firm financial footing, and significantly increasing the number and quality of city services.
Crump would no doubt be pleased with many of the changes that have taken place in Memphis in the last 30 years. The city now boasts one on the nation's largest and best-equipped regional medical facilities. It has become the country's leading distribution center, where air, rail, highway, and river connections converge from the four corners of the world.
Memphis offers a variety of family and business opportunities. Located on the "Mighty Mississippi," the city is home to world famous barbeque, cotton, the Blues, Memphis in May International Festival, and Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion.
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