Published: January 18, 2018
So, you’ve lived here all your life, been to all the museums and iconic landmarks, and shown off the city to dozens of visiting friends and family. You know this city like the back of your hand, right? Think again. We did some digging and discovered 10 surprising Memphis facts and stories that you might not know about our fabulous city. Check these out, and get ready to impress the folks at the water cooler tomorrow!
Surprising Memphis Facts & Stories We Bet You Didn’t Know
1. Sure, you’ve made plenty of drives down Summer Avenue, and you may have traveled Autumn. But most Memphians don’t know that these two seasonal streets once had neighbors that formed a full year. What we call Faxon was once Winter Avenue, and Forrest was formerly known as Spring.
2. Despite the city’s deep respect for the Mississippi River, relatively few citizens know that the largest maritime disaster in American history occurred just north of downtown Memphis. Part of the reason history has largely forgotten the wreck of the Sultana and the death of 1,800 of the 2,500 Union war prisoners, crew and passengers aboard is because it occurred the same week as Lincoln’s assassination and a war-weary country was focused elsewhere. The boat’s official capacity was 376 passengers, but a greedy captain wedged in 2,100 more to earn $10 a head. The already weakened boiler exploded during the stressful trip upstream on the rapid, flood-stage river, killing hundreds more than the sinking of the Titanic.
3. The story of Tom Lee’s heroics as he saved 30 people from a doomed steamboat are more well known, but you may not realize that we also owe a Memphis cultural icon to this act of bravery. The future Margaret Dixon was one of the passengers saved from the Mississippi, and she and her husband would go on to create the art and horticultural treasure now celebrated as Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
4. Memphis is celebrating its bicentennial next year, but not its 200th year as Shelby County’s seat. That honor went to Raleigh in 1825, and the two cities maintained a rivalry until Memphis incorporated its neighbor after World War II. Memphis’ second mayor, Isaac Rawlings, is buried in Raleigh’s nearly hidden 7-acre cemetery on Old Raleigh Lagrange Road, because he considered Memphis a “rowdy river town” and did not want to rest there for eternity.
5. If you want to find the resting place of Memphis’ first mayor, Marcus Winchester, good luck. He’s buried in an unknown location in Winchester Park, an area encompassing the Medical District and Uptown neighborhoods. Despite his office and status as son of the city’s co-founder, as well as his positions as city register, postmaster and ferry operator, Winchester’s career declined following his 1824 marriage to Marie Louise Amarante Loiselle Regis (called Mary) of New Orleans. Most historians agree that Mary was a free woman of color, and as the city became more established and fear of slave uprisings increased, the city formally codified a law forbidding interracial marriage. Although shunned by many, the couple was friends with Fanny Wright, founder of the progressive, but short-lived Nashoba cooperative community.
6. Memphis’ greatest calamity brought about a brief, early era of opportunity. Although they contracted yellow fever at the same rate as other residents during Memphis’ multiple epidemics, African-American sufferers had a substantially lower mortality rate – 7% to white residents’ 70%. As a result, more African-Americans stayed in Memphis and sustained the city during these outbreaks, and in 1878, were allowed to serve as patrolmen with the Memphis Police Department for the first time. Access to these jobs, along with positions in the fire department and other civic entities, was revoked by the end of the 19th century as white citizens returned and Jim Crow laws blanketed the South.
7. Now home of Big River Crossing, the Harahan Bridge was named after James Theodore Harahan, president of Illinois Central Railroad with a tie to Memphis through his second wife, Mary Mallory. But Harahan did not survive to see the bridge he championed completed; he was killed in a railroad accident that may not have been an accident at all. He and three other rail executives were asleep in a private car at the end of a Memphis-bound train when an approaching engine split the sleeper in half, as well as Harahan’s skull. Suspiciously, theirs was the only wooden car on the train (all other sleepers were steel), and a similar fate had recently met another railroad president with whom rail workers were unhappy.
8. Memphis itself may not even exist without the help of its first African-American millionaire, Robert R. Church. Stranded in Memphis by Union soldiers who overtook the steamboat on which he was a 23-year-old steward, the unacknowledged son of a slaveholder made his fortune through investments in hospitality, entertainment and real estate. When yellow fever depleted the city’s economy, Church purchased Bond Number One (cost: $1,000) to restore Memphis’ charter. FedExForum now sits adjacent to Robert Church Park, which was initially created by Church himself to house an auditorium and recreation area for Memphis’ African-American residents.
9. Although now home to the Memphis Roller Derby, the fairgrounds once hosted a derby of a different sort. The Tennessee Derby, a thoroughbred horse-racing event comparable to its peer in neighboring Kentucky, was run annually at Montgomery Park Race Track beginning in 1884. The last race was run in 1906; gambling was banned in Memphis the next year.
10. Denied entry into the University of Memphis’ graduate program, Maxine Smith went on to be instrumental in the desegregation of Memphis public schools and personally escorted the 13 children who integrated MPS on their first day of school. In 1994, after serving more than two decades on the Memphis Board of Education, she was appointed to the Tennessee Board of Regents, the governing body of … the University of Memphis.
Now, you’re armed with some fun Memphis facts for the next time you’re playing tour guide around our great city!