The old classic song from the musical “Steamboat”, “Ole Man River” has the river rollin right along. Yes, he does, and the motorboaters of Memphis roll right along with him, in him and on him. People in Memphis with the nerve and experience have spent many a day, weekend or more skiing, swimming and floating on our water playground called Ole Man River.
We all know when to play and when NOT to play around on this body, because he taught us all well. There are times when he’s a big soft flat collection of variations of flow, as you look at the surface. When its flood season, and he’s up on his floodplain, you rode around, but you might not want to ski in the channel right then, because it was deep enough for undertow. There are times when you just didn’t wanna mess with him at all, and that is usually when the wind is high blowin right up his channel. That’s called getting in his face, and it made him mad. He got choppy and gave everybody a rough ride.
I recently read about some guys whose canoes got overturned when the wind tipped them over and they lost a lot of their “stuff” along with their lives nearly. A canoe is not nearly stable enough of a vessel for me to take on the river. When Memphis in May has their annual Canoe and Kayak Race, they all stick close to the Tennessee shore, nobody venturing out. The river is shut down to river traffic. The props on a barge pull from shore to shore and they can and will suck a canoe in if it gets close enough. Shoot, they’ll take a houseboat if the driver is stupid enough to get too close.
On the issue of riding around barges on the river the word is don’t!
I was skiing along not far offshore one sunny Saturday afternoon, and my driver cut throttle and pointed to shore. They came back and got me out of the water, and we went over to where a bow was sticking up out of the water, close to shore. We three guys strained to get the craft horizontal and bailed it out. The driver had gotten his windshield smashed by the wake of a barge, and the boat was swamped, as well. Never got a good idea of how he got it to shore, but he did, wife and kids aboard. After bailing the boat out enough for the family to re-board, we towed them to a ramp across the river, where they gladly got it on a trailer and left. We got their lunch, tho, as a reward, saving us a trip down to the Yacht Club.
On rough weather days, overcast and windy, even sideways to the current, there were days when a 17-21 foot boat would knife the first wave, go over the second and stare the next 3-4’ above his deck. Then is when you needed to be able to turn around between waves and get out! Ole Man River gets in a mood sometimes and he’s no fun to play with!
When I was real young, my father took his young family out on a 14’ Century with Johnson 25 horse outboard, launching from Edgar Point in front of town. We went up the old channel, which went northwest from that point. We’d all get in that little boat and head up to some beach, and play in the sand and water, drinkin in Hi-C and river water in equal amounts. Back then, life wasn’t as dangerous as they say it is now. Ignorance is bliss, and we had no idea of the dangers of being a bunch of kids walking out on a shoal under water, till the folks on shore looked small to us. The current could’ve swept us away, but the parents made sure we had our life jackets on, then they didn’t worry too much. If one of us got to floating too far away, they’d just fire up the Johnson, go out and scoop us up. That was life growing up on Ole Man River. What a big playground! We had a blast! Most Memphians now freak out at the thought. Good, we didn’t want it too crowded. Crowded with our river loving friends was all we needed. So many of those friends now raise their kids not to be afraid of him. My oldest niece spent a lot of time in a playpen on a sandbar, except when we had her out in the water, playing and splashing. Finding an inlet off the channel where there was no current, just good safe sand and water, that was life. We ate it up.
The river has a lot of twists and turns, and this was one of them. Twists and turns explain why a car trip to New Orleans is 390 miles, and a float trip is 635. The Ole Man just goes where he wants to, and when it is flood season, he’s everywhere. Back in 1927 he got all over everything, and the government stepped in, creating TVA so his tributaries wouldn’t make him flood so badly. He still gets a threatening amount from the Ohio River tho.
One other thing that happened was that levees and walls got built along the sides of the river to keep it from being too much of a problem. Recognizing that the water HAD to go somewhere, they built the levees a mile away from the channel, giving the river a lot of playroom to expand into. Those levees and such now prevent silt from getting out and around in the lower delta, so that now southern Louisiana is turning into marshland almost entirely. This means hurricanes have little to stop them at landfall.
Ole Man River at Memphis is called the Lower Mississippi, and from Cairo IL upstream is called the Upper Mississippi River. Lower Mississippi has no dams on it; Upper has several, all upstream of the Missouri River entrance, just above St. Louis. Back in 1993, there was an event called the Hundred Years Flood in the Upper Mississippi, and the Ole Man was 18” from a first floor ceiling in a house along him north of St. Louis. He didn’t break out of his channel at Memphis when all that water got here. But, like I said, tho, when the Ohio gets high, watch out! By the time it feeds the Ole Man it has drained the Midwest, some of the Northeast and he’s just added the Tennessee River to his H-2-OH! Collection. This makes Ohio River flooding a big deal down here. In 1998 when this happened the Ole Man got within 5 feet of his all time high here. At the Memphis Yacht Club there is a bridge going out to the marina. This bridge sits on wheels on the shore end, going up and down a ramp, with walkways coming at a 90 degree angle to it at various levels meeting the shore end wherever the Ole Man put it. That year the spud at the top of the hill wasn’t high enough to tie the cable to. The manager had to put some I-beams across a break in the wall at the top of the ramp and put a cable around the beams and tie that to the shore end of the bridge. It was UP there!
Back in 1811, there was an earthquake in Northwest Tennessee, and the Ole Man had to stop rolling for a day or two to fill the hole created by the earthquake, creating Reelfoot Lake. He literally went north from that point south of it, flowing backwards until the lake was filled, then resumed his rolling down to the Gulf. Reelfoot Lake is a beautiful place to fish, and camp out; it’s too shallow for much swimming. Get good scenic sunsets and sunrises there. Memphis Camera Club goes up every year. It is also one of two nesting places for Bald Eagles, the national bird.
The Ole Man has to be given another place to run, sometimes to make way for what man wants to do with him. The Eisenhower Administration had created the interstate highway system in the late 50’s and it was decided one of the bridges would cross the river north of the present three that were already there. This took taking some of the bend out of the river and giving it a long curve coming into Memphis. Starting off, the Corps of Engineers put Mud Island on a diet and made it a long skinny piece of land in front of town. Made it a terrestrial Twiggy. Well, the original Mud Island was started when a gunboat sank during the Civil War Battle of Memphis, which was a naval battle. Silt and dirt collected around the sunken boat and created a large island we all called Mud Island. Well, they decided Mud Island was too fat, and in the way of where wanted Ole Man River to go, so they cut a wide stretch of land out of it and let the Ole Man carry off the part that was in his way. He obliged, of course, and that cut out portion, plus the part he carried off was the new channel for the river. Ole Man River had had a long curve into Arkansas that they replaced with a long curved channel east of that a few hundred yards. Taking out the wiggle, or at least re-directing the channel meant making the new channel that the US Corps of Engineers dredged out, keeping it navigable for barge traffic. They then put rows of pilings in the old channel, giving the sand and silt something to get caught on, shallowing the old channel so the Old Man would use the new one. Thus, the Ole Man was slimmed out, straightened a little and ran right alongside the terrestrial Twiggy called Mud Island coming into Memphis area. Nowadays Twiggy has a line of houses on it overlooking the river in a community called Harbor Town, running its entire length nearly. Harbor Town residents have quite an enviable view of Ole Man River. But sitting on a big sand pile means that if the house isn’t sitting on pilings 50’-60’ deep down into the sand, the foundation is going to settle, and do so unevenly, as some have begun to do. Ouch!
Back in 1982, someone came up with an idea to make the south end of Mud Island a river park, complete with a concrete model of the Lower Mississippi running down the middle. They put shops, a couple of restaurants and an ampthitheater in, and it went well for a while. They even connected it with an overhead trolley hanging from a bridge across from Downtown Memphis. Some big name bands came into the amphitheater in the 80’s, like Beach Boys, Chicago, Temptations and Four Tops, and the like. The amphiteater has a big open place in the harbor just behind the stage, facing downtown, and it’s a good place to bootleg a concert with your boat full of friends. For Chicago, in ’96, it was a nighttime concert, the Ole Man was up to 32’, so the water was right up to withn 6’ of the back of the stage. I quit counting boats when I got to 50 that night. We all had packed boats. I had 11 people on the one I was using.
O feet on the gauge at Memphis means the river is 189’ above sea level, and the declared flood stage is 34’ above that point. That’s when the Ole Man has so much water he starts using his flood plain. He then has nearly a mile to go before he meets the levee at West Memphis.
While he commands a great deal of respect for his strength and playful meandering, Ole Man River is a favorite here. There are condos at the top of the bluff downtown, houses along Mud Island, and always people on foot in Tom Lee Park, walking themselves, their kids, their animals to just be near him. In May, the stages go up and down, the tents go up for the bbq contest and the Sunset Symphony plays next to him. He’s such a handsome, likable chap, Ole Man River.