Mud Island: Child
Of The River
By Bobby Joe Williams
Mud Island or City Island may be called the funeral pyre of city planners. Since 1929
Mud Island has been the subject of dozens of plans. They have advocated the
construction of the world's largest water fountain, a geometric steel art structure
360 feet high, a park on the island, and a college.
Mud Island has had its detractors also. Prior to the 1920s, there were several
attempts to destroy it, but none succeeded. City officials believed the island would
leave Memphis high and dry as a port on the Mississippi River. The island flanked the
major portion of the paved wharf, therefore, it had to be removed.
Before 1876, Memphis was in the convex of a large bend in the river. The concave part
of the bend across the river from Memphis was known as Hopefield Point. The small
town of Hopefield was just opposite Memphis. The Wolf River entered the Mississippi
in the northern part of the bend. At the northern end of Hopefield Bend the main
channel of the river crossed to the Tennessee shore and swept by Memphis. Thus, the
strong current kept the harbor clear of any obstructions.
Prior to 1876, the river made a deep bend around Brandywine Island about 40 miles
north of Memphis. An old chute channel known as Fogleman's Chute cut across the bend.
In 1876 the Mississippi cut through this chute channel. The current in the river west
of Brandywine Island was reversed and Fogleman's Chute became the main river channel.
A few years later an old chute behind Beef Island began to enlarge and ultimately
became the main channel.
After the cutoff above Memphis developed, the main current was thrown against
Hopefield Bend and then across, but farther down than before, to the Memphis front.
These events created favorable conditions for the formation of a pressure eddy.
When the main river current, after flowing along the upper part of a sharp bend in
the river, crosses the river and strikes the opposite bank, the flow of the water is
deflected and a portion of it flows upstream forming a pressure eddy. This may be
called a whirlpool. Pressure eddies often attain great dimensions and the flow of the
current in them is not regular. During one period the flow may be upstream, and
during the next it may be reversed. It is this type of eddy that led to the formation
of a small sandbar, which eventually became Mud Island.
With the change in the river, the main current was directed against Hopefield Point.
The force of the current caused extensive caving of the banks and sediment from the
caving was carried across the river and deposited in the Memphis Harbor. By 1886 an
had been developed, the current of which started near the foot of Market and moved
slowly upstream to near the mouth of Wold River.
The Corps of Engineers reported in 1889 that the shoaling in Memphis Harbor had taken
the form of a middle bar extending downstream from the foot of the island above Wolf
River (Hen Island or Frames Island). The bar had not connected with the bank of the
river, and, even if it did, a narrow but sufficient channel would remain between the
bar and the paved landing. As of 1889, boats could still reach the paved portion of
By the end of 1901 the bar extended to Monroe. For the next several years its
migration was halted by caving at the south end. The bar continued to expand in width
on the northern end and the height increased by about two and a half feet during 1904
and 1905. In 1910 the bar resumed its progression downstream.
During the floods of 1912 and 1913 river stages reached record levels at many
locations on the river. These two floods had a tremendous building effect on the bar
in the harbor and caused a second bar to form between the island and the paved wharf.
Formation of the second bar between the island and the paved wharf threatened to
block the upper portion of the harbor. City officials called on the Corps of
Engineers to keep the harbor open. Engineers conducted a study of the problem and
proposed to divert Wolf River along the Memphis front between the island and the
wharf. It was hoped this would wash away the second bar.
In 1917 this project was completed. It consisted of excavation of a canal to divert
the flow of Wolf River along the front of the harbor; the dredging of a channel
between the Tennessee shore and the island; the construction of a dam across Wolf
River to force the current of that stream through the diversion canal and maintain a
channel of sufficient depth during low water; and the dredging of a channel through a
sandbar in the Mississippi at the entrance of the Loosahatchie River to maintain a
flow of part of the Mississippi through the Loosahatchie. The added water would
increase the scouring effect of the flow between the island and the paved wharf. The
project corrected the difficulties in the harbor. However, the channel had to be
dredged almost annually.
The census of 1920 showed 25 people living on Mud Island. Most of them were engaged
in farming. At his point an erroneous report appeared on how the island was formed.
On August 4, 1920, The Commercial Appeal printed a short article about the island.
The article stated that Mud Island first appeared in the summer of 1910. This story
was expanded in later years and reprinted as late as 1960. There is no way the
article could be correct. The article of 1920 gave the census figure of the people
living on the island. It went on to state that the census of 1910 showed no people
living on the island. If the report is correct, there was an island in 1910 large
enough to accommodate people. Nevertheless, the paper stated that the island was
formed in 1910.
In brief, the article says the Amphitrite was turned over to the Missouri Naval
Militia as a training vessel. The boat came up the Mississippi bound for St. Louis
and ran aground in front of Memphis (perhaps on the sandbar already there). The boat
was stuck so hard it could not be removed. It remained in the harbor for two years
before it was refloated in 1912. During the period a sandbar formed around the boat
giving rise to Mud Island.
In the 1930s came the realization that the obnoxious island might be an asset. In the
depth of the Depression city officials put Reconstruction Finance Corporation
employees to work on the island. They built a large "U" shaped dike to protect the
An airport was built and operated on the island for several years. In the late 1950s
the construction of the interstate highway system began. As a part of the system, a
new bridge across the Mississippi was to be constructed. Before construction of the
bridge could be started, the river at Memphis would have to be stabilized. As part of
this project the Wold River was dammed and diverted into the old Loosahatchie chute
and into the Mississippi.
İBobby Joe Williams 2008