Our Other Riverfront

December 6th, 2018

When Dad died in 1987, my brothers and I put his ashes in the river at a spot we marked just off the Loosahatchie Bar, the big island across from Harbor Town.

That entire island is in Shelby County and, to date, Dad is the only one over there.

As published in The Daily Memphian, December 7, 2018.



Ray Skinner called me the other day and told me a story. He has a bunch of them.

When the powers that be were about to build the Tennessee Welcome Center somewhere Downtown a few decades ago, Ray headed the Metro Memphis Attractions Association and he was pushing a wild idea.

Instead of over here, build it over there.

Create access from the interstate, maybe enhancing the Mound City exit, raise some of the land above flood stage, and build a truly singular welcome center – the only structure on the river on that side – an island unto itself in the spring – accessible year round by car and by boat – affording a spectacular view of the bridge and the city – both a welcome and a wow for our visitors.

Ray said the city and county mayors at the time, Dick Hackett and Bill Morris respectively, were on board and the concept went to the state, landing on Governor Ned Ray McWherter’s desk.

Ray quoted the governor, “Ain’t building nothing in Arkansas.” So the Tennessee Welcome Center was built on this side of the river, on the slack water Wolf River Harbor, in fact, and now welcomes the world to Bass Pro.

That might be just a good story, but the rest of the story is even more interesting.

The governor didn’t realize then, and most of us don’t know now, that everything you see across the river upstream from the Hernando de Soto Bridge and all the way into Tipton County is Tennessee. The island you see across from Greenbelt Park and Harbor Town and Shelby Forest is called the Loosahatchie Bar, and all of it – bigger than all of Mud Island and some of Downtown together – is in Shelby County. Everything west to the middle of Dacus Lake is in Shelby County.

Everything you see over there is our other riverfront.

The Supreme Court said so.

The Mississippi River had something called an avulsion in 1876 – a huge burp that literally moved the channel of the river in a 24-hour period to where we see it now, leaving Mound City and Marion high and dry in Arkansas, cutting off some of Tennessee, and starting a border fight.

Along the way on a place called Island 37 just north, we had some bootlegging, some gambling, some raids, some arrests, somebody murdered in a jail over there, and some jurisdiction outrage over here, all ending up in Arkansas v. Tennessee in 1918 and the Supreme Court setting our wandering border, and every other border determined by running water:

“Where running streams are the boundaries between states, the same rule applies as between private proprietors -- namely that, when the bed and channel are changed by the natural and gradual processes known as erosion and accretion, the boundary follows the varying course of the stream; while if the stream, from any cause, natural or artificial, suddenly leaves its old bed and forms a new one by the process known as an avulsion, the resulting change of channel works no change of boundary, which remains in the middle of the old channel, although no water may be flowing in it and irrespective of subsequent changes in the new channel.”

In other words, when the United States and Great Britain determined what the middle of the Mississippi was in the Treaty of Peace in 1783, that remains the border between Tennessee and Arkansas today, wet or not.

While the riverfront we’ve long known is getting our attention again and should, our other riverfront begs our imagination, longs for vision as well as views, and deserves recognition as part of us.

For a very interesting stretch at Memphis, both sides of America’s greatest river are in Shelby County, Tennessee.

I’m a Memphian, and we should look at our potential from both sides.

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