Discovered, Again and Again
August 28th, 2020
(published in The Daily Memphian)
Lauren Crews and I were sitting atop the bluff one late afternoon sipping whiskey.
Our view from the wrought iron gazebo behind the National Ornamental Metal Museum was pretty much the view Hernando de Soto had when he first saw the Mississippi right about here in May of 1541. His claim to have discovered the river must have come as a surprise to the indigenous peoples who had lived here for centuries before he made Spain’s claim.
In fact, our view was pretty much the same as Chief Chisca’s from atop the ceremonial mound just south of where we sat, one of two mounds still right here, quiet monuments to provenance. The majestic, sweeping turn of the great river before him must have commanded his eye as it commands ours today. Life and death for his people would come from that river, and he could literally see it coming from right here.
This was the view the French had when they built the first European structure here in 1682 and later followed with Fort Assumption in 1739, hence the name of the neighborhood just east today, French Fort.
This was the view when the United States built Fort Pickering here in 1801. This is what the commandant of that fort would see of a late afternoon in 1809, maybe even with a bit of whiskey. That was a decade before Memphis was founded just north, and four decades before that commandant, Zachary Taylor, would become the 12th President of the United States in 1849.
This is what Union soldiers would have looked down on from their Civil War battery atop Chisca’s mound – the cannon mounts are still up there, the entrance to their powder magazine in the mound still visible.
This particular afternoon, Lauren had asked me to join him following the first column I wrote about this haunting point of origin for this city. He told me a story about paddling the Mississippi from source to mouth in a canoe, just Lauren and his dog.
He told me that on a number of occasions, on yet another hot still night on yet another buggy sandbar, after he had pulled the canoe ashore and had yet again thrown his paddle down and exclaimed out loud to no one but the bugs and the dog that he was done – using adjectives and adverbs best suited to a limited audience – that he was quitting.
“Dan, the dog wouldn’t let me.”
That visit was almost ten years ago. I had just written about this place, what was once here and still here in spirit.
In addition to all that early history and all those forts, here also was the pride of Kemmons Wilson’s new chain when it was built in the ‘50s, its glass-walled, fifth-floor dining room affording that stunning view of the river, and now a fading Super 8 Motel.
Here also are the mysterious, abandoned Marine Hospital grounds behind it.
Here is the imposing hospital built in 1936. Here is the deep-porched, metal-roofed elegant Victorian lady from 1883, the nursing quarters of the original hospital.
If it’s not haunted, it should be – by Civil War wounded, some say, but that was far earlier, or by yellow fever victims, some say, but that, too, was earlier.
Those who took the air on the porches and the grounds until 1965, who lost a battle in these rooms, were river people. They fought the Mississippi building the original levees, operating the boats, dredging and dragging land and life from the flotsam and jetsam of a nation, and it broke them.
You can feel the river, and hear them in the quiet.
Lauren called that meeting to let me know he had bought the Marine Hospital and had grand plans for it.
In the decade since, the plans have changed course like the river. He has figuratively thrown the paddle down many times in the face of opposing currents and storms, but The Marine Residence at Historic French Fort is rising. The many windows and rooms of the hospital are becoming modern apartments, the wide porches of the nursing quarters are becoming galleries over a courtyard pool. He still fights his battle to make the area more accessible, its significance less of a secret.
Lauren’s dog would again be happy to know that he didn’t quit.
Chisca and his people, de Soto, Taylor, and the reasons for settlement, for forts, for a city, are all captured and held here, all in the view. Lauren and I will share it again soon, and a bit of whiskey.
Memphis, in fact anywhere, is about connections. There is no more connected place to our beginnings than here. The wrought iron in that gazebo was donated to the Metal Museum by the Waring family, and once stood in Colonel Roane Waring’s yard, where my wife Nora played as a child two doors up the street from her house. When I told her what I was writing about this week, she reminded me that she was a candy-striper, a volunteer nurse, in the Marine Hospital just before it closed.
Take a little road trip yourself. Take the last exit before the Memphis-Arkansas bridge as Crump is turning into I-55, the Metal Museum Drive exit, and take a look around.
I’m a Memphian, and you can see all of our history from here.
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