#TBT: the Memphis Riverfront when “Cotton Was King”
This image, from the collections of the Library of Congress, dates from 1942. The long sweep of the wharf was the platform for loading and unloading cotton, the dominant crop from the Mid South’s agricultural economy for more than a century.
Both of my parents are from Memphis, and I visited regularly as a child in the mid 20th century. By then, the riverfront had become “no man’s land,” the shipping function having been supplanted first by railroads and, later, by the interstate highway system. Our family story, though, was that my maternal grandfather, a civil engineer by training, got involved with conservation work “because I got tired of standing on the levee and seeing the soil of Iowa and Illinois go by.” He and I never talked about the river; he passed years before I became involved in river work.
My mother, born in 1935, would have been six years old when the picture was made. In 1942, the family was stationed on the west coast with my grandfather serving in the Navy, Pacific theater. Even if they had been in town, the closest my mother would have gotten to the riverfront would probably have been the Peabody Hotel, seen here in the right side of the image. When I was growing up, a popular saying was “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.” The lobby was the place where planters and politicians gathered to do business and cut deals. The lobby is still there, although I seem to think the hotel is in a different location, but everything else in this picture is utterly changed.
Photo source, Library of Congress