The Great River Road stretches from Minnesota to Arkansas along what was once the western boundary of America: the Mississippi River. The 185.5-mile Tennessee portion of the corridor is a tapestry of history and culture, featuring some of the most scenic areas in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Experience the true history of Tennessee and the United States here, where cotton transformed the South, where brother fought brother in the Civil War, and where the river created a unique culture unlike any other in the world.
ONE - EARLY HISTORY
Human hands have shaped the history and culture of West Tennessee for thousands of years. Ancient village sites and burial mounds stood along the Mississippi River Valley long before the Chickasaws built their settlements in the 1700s. The Spanish came next, establishing Fort San Fernando de las Barrancas at the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff in 1795. Three years later, the Spanish abandoned and destroyed the fort, leaving this prominent bluff overlooking the Mississippi River empty and quiet—until 1819 when a group of property investors, including Andrew Jackson, who would later become President of the United States, founded the city of Memphis, a name evoking the glory of the ancient capital of Egypt.
From the earliest days of the steamboat, through the present day, Memphis has been a major center of river transportation. Passenger steamers linked Memphis with river ports up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers as late as the 1920s. In 1840s and 1850s, railroad lines linked Memphis with the outside world, and the city began to grow quickly. It was during this prosperous time that Memphis earned the title “Biggest Inland Cotton Market in the World.”
The city grew to 12 times its size in those 20 years after the railroad arrived, with many German and Irish immigrants shaping the culture. Memphis in the 1850s became Tennessee’s largest city and was know far and wide for its grand mansions, its rich neighboring plantations, and its thriving river port.
TWO - CIVIL WAR
At the time of the Civil War, Memphis was already crucial to the nation because of its plentiful river and railroad junctions, connections, and markets. When Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, Memphis became a Confederate stronghold and officials took steps to protect the city by building river forts to the north.
Located near the Tiptonville Civil War site, and now underwater, Island Number Ten was once located on the New Madrid Bend of the river and provided a strong Confederate defensive position. Between February and April 1862, Union gunboats attacked the island and started a weeks-long struggle, eventually gaining access to the South in what is now known as the Battle of Island Number Ten. Over 6,000 Confederate prisoners were taken at surrender, and the Union moved south down river to take Memphis.
To defend the city Confederates abandoned Fort Wright at the town of Randolph. The fort began as both a defensive position for controlling river traffic on the Mississippi and a Confederate training camp (1861-1862). Soldiers gained experience in the construction of fortifications and the setup of artillery batteries to counter naval attacks. They could undertake defense drills and acquire general military skills and discipline. Soldiers who were trained at Fort Wright fought in many significant battles, including those at Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Franklin, and Nashville.
Union forces recaptured Memphis from the Confederacy in the Battle of Memphis. On June 6, 1862, this spectacular naval battle fought between Union and Confederate ironclads and warships on the Mississippi River immediately north of Memphis was witnessed by many citizens and recreated in vivid newspaper articles around the world.
As many as 180 Confederate sailors were believed to have died in the battle, with the Union Navy suffering only a single casualty—Colonel Charles Ellet, who had designed and led the Union’s fleet of steam rams, died several days later of a wound received during the battle. Ellet’s steam rams were vital to the Union victory at the battle, and his sacrifice was honored when the U.S. Navy named a WWII era destroyer for him and his descendants, who were also respected ship architects.
The Battle of Memphis was a major victory for the Union that resulted in the destruction of most of the Confederacy’s naval capability—rendering the Mississippi River the Union’s sole domain, ensuring easy transport of men and supplies, and denying the Confederacy any transport ability on the largest and most important shipping channel in America. Combined with the Union’s destruction of the rail lines leading from Memphis to the Confederate strongholds in Eastern Tennessee, the Union capture of Memphis was a strategic necessity in the war effort.
After the battle, the city remained under Union control for the rest of the Civil War and became a major federal military base. What had been a slave-trading center in the 1850s became an Underground Railroad gateway as the city became a temporary home for thousands of escaped slaves. Memphis residents contributed mightily to the nation’s struggle for civil rights for the next 100 years.
The river’s last major battle took place at Fort Pillow, near the river village of Fulton, in April 1864 when some 1,500 Confederates commanded by Gen. Nathan B. Forrest stormed Union troops, including about 300 African American soldiers, stationed at the fort. “Deaths totaled 64 percent of the black troops and at least 31 percent of the whites. Forrest alleged that the Federals refused to surrender until most had died. Federal survivors claimed that a massacre took place.” This place of courage, death, and controversy is preserved as Fort Pillow State Historic Park.
THREE - YELLOW FEVER
Memphis continued to prosper unlike most cities within the South following the Civil War—by the nature of its location on the Mississippi River, and its strategic importance to both the war effort and the ongoing economic welfare of a river-shipping nation, Memphis was able to thrive while most other Southern cities languished in poverty.
While Memphis was booming with river commerce, unfortunately the prosperity was tempered by the wrath of nature. Located on the river, with rudimentary and aging sanitation, and with a warm climate, Memphis found itself in the crosshairs of yellow fever, a terrible viral disease spread by the mosquitos that bred in the swamps and sewers around the city. Most victims of the disease died within two weeks. Ironically, the disease was likely brought to the new world from Africa on ships transporting slaves to market.
Yellow fever brought death to Memphis in 1828, 1855, and 1867. It was believed that the virus was often brought north by passengers traveling on steamships from New Orleans, which suffered many of the same problems. In 1873 yellow fever struck again when two boats arrived at the docks from New Orleans with sick men on board who died upon arrival, and soon there were several deaths on nearby Promenade Street. Attempts were made to disinfect the city, but they were ineffective and the number of deaths grew daily. 2,500 people died between August and November of 1873. Finally, the outbreak of 1878 was even more deadly with more than 5,000 dying and 25,000 fleeing the city—many permanently.
The epidemics reduced the population of Memphis to a fraction of its size during the Civil War. At same time, many former slaves, now freed men and women and full American citizens began their efforts to establish neighborhoods and community institutions. They held leadership positions and jobs formerly reserved only for whites–including policemen. Yellow fever and thousands of new citizens not only changed the city’s population but shaped its culture: The birth of the blues; Robert Church, the first African-American millionaire; and the rich musical heritage of Beale Street were all made possible by the new opportunities afforded African-Americans in the immediate years after the Civil War..
FOUR - THE GREAT RIVER ROAD SCENIC BYWAY
Legendary author Mark Twain called the Mississippi River “The Body of the Nation” and on the Great River Road National Scenic Byway it’s easy to see why. The byway stretches across 10 states—that’s Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana—originating in the lake country of Minnesota and flowing through the heartland of America to its end in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast.
The transcontinental Great River Road was developed in 1938 by consensus of all 10 states’ governors to showcase the beauty of one of America’s best treasures. The road crisscrosses the river through the states, with green byway signs that have been a fixture of the Great River Road for years. In Tennessee, the byway takes you to incredible scenic areas along the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain, home to an amazing array of wildlife.
The outstanding vistas and overlooks of the Chickasaw Bluffs are prime spots for eyeing migratory patterns along with inspiring views of the Mississippi River, while offering plenty of history, including Civil War landmarks such as Fort Pillow State Historic Park. There are few roads in America that contain the depth and breadth of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, connecting some of America’s most enchanting wildlife refuges and engaging historical landmarks along one path.
FIVE - THE GREAT RIVER and NATURAL HISTORY
It’s an American tradition to try and tame the Mississippi River with words. The river’s original name comes from the Ojibwe word misi-zibi, meaning Great River, or gichi-ziibi, meaning Big River. The river has been eulogized in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn along with other river novels that marvel at its power and beauty. The Mississippi River has other nicknames such as ”Great River,” “Big Muddy,” and even “Father of Waters.”
One of the most popular natural history attractions in Memphis, Mud Island is not actually an island, but a small peninsula surrounded by the Mississippi River and Wolf River Harbor. The peninsula first appeared as a sandbar in the late 1890s and increased in size during the floods of 1912. A local legend claims the original sandbar that created Mud Island emerged as a buildup of silt around a sunken Civil War gunboat from the Battle of Memphis.
By the early 1930s, squatters had begun to live on the island, though flooding made it uninhabitable for long periods of time almost every year. After serving for a short time in the 1960s as the location for a small airport, today Mud Island is home to a new museum, restaurants, and an amphitheater, as well as a river walk that includes a scale model of the Mississippi River.
Tucked between the Mississippi River and Reelfoot Lake, Tiptonville is the seat of Lake County. It’s a community surrounded by water; because of its elevation, it was used as a relief camp during major floods in the 1920s and 1930s. The town of Tiptonville sits on what is known as the “Tiptonville Dome,” a small lift 9 miles wide and 7 miles long, that has spared it from the most devastating river floods.
Reelfoot Lake was formed when a series of strong earthquakes centered in New Madrid, Missouri rocked the region along the Great River Road between December 1811 and March 1812. One quake registered an 8.4 on the Richter scale, one of the strongest quakes on record in North America, with tremors felt as far away as London.
Witnesses reported a horribly loud grinding and rumbling noise, a thick cloud of sulfur-smelling gas, and trees falling down everywhere. The Mississippi River actually reversed its course, escaped its banks and pulled back in rapidly, taking with it trees, land, boats, animals, and anything else in its path. It sent giant waves along its shore that overturned ships and collapsed the banks of the tributaries.
The river rushed into the forest surrounding Reelfoot River, receding to leave Reelfoot Lake. The trees of that forest still remain—the stumps and trees poking through the surface of the water create an underwater forest and natural fish hatchery that is home to 56 different species of fish and more than 240 species of birds. The path of the original Reelfoot River is still visible in the lake, because there are no trees in the channel.
In the early 20th century, a group of landowners purchased almost the entire shoreline of Reelfoot Lake. They formed the West Tennessee Land Company to enforce what they saw to be their legal rights, including the ownership of the lake itself, and most importantly its fishing rights.
Opposing the West Tennessee Land Company’s monopolistic control of the lake, the “Night Riders” were from families that had derived much of their living from fishing the lake for generations, joined by their friends and supporters. They attacked company property and supporters under the cover of night. In 1908, the West Tennessee Land Company hired two attorneys to enforce their claims to the shoreline. In reply, the Night Riders seized both men; one was hanged and shot, while the other barely escaped with his life.
Tennessee’s governor deployed the state militia to help quell the violence. Though the alleged murderers were arrested, charges were eventually dropped and the lake was soon declared to be part of the public domain, which guaranteed the right of the public to use it regardless of who owned the land adjacent to it.
Stumps litter the bottom of Reelfoot Lake, left from trees that died once the land was submerged by water when the lake was first formed by the 1811-1812 earthquakes. The stumps proved difficult to navigate, until the Calhoun family developed their “Stumpjumper” boats. Joseph Calhoun, originally a woodworker and blacksmith, started building the cypress and oak boats with a shallow bottom in 1910 in Hornbeak. His son Boone made boatbuilding a full-time job and incorporated the special hinged oars that allowed riders to face the same direction they were rowing.
In the 1930s, the first inboard motor was put in the wooden rowboats, originally developed from a washing machine motor. The boats eventually found their way to the Smithsonian and out of the now-shuttered shop in Tiptonville. The late Bill Calhoun, grandson of Boone, was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998, in honor of his efforts to keep a traditional craft alive.
Named for the Native American tribe that once inhabited the area, the Chickasaw Bluffs overlook the Mississippi River and were especially coveted vantage points during the Civil War. Fort Pillow, located on the first bluff, was the site of one of the war’s most controversial events, the “Fort Pillow Massacre.”
The bluff, now located in Fort Pillow State Historic Park, once sat over the river, but is now approximately one mile away due to natural changes in the water’s course. The park’s 1,600-acres are situated on the first Chickasaw Bluff overlooking the mighty Mississippi. This was a strategic spot for the Confederate Army during the Civil War; they hastily built earthen fortifications here, which are well preserved today.
The second bluff, in Randolph, was home to the Confederate’s Fort Wright and served as a training area for troops. Generals such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Patrick Cleburne and Alexander P. Stewart all got their start here.
Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park straddles the line of Tipton and Shelby Counties and is the site of the third bluff. The park is one of the largest tracts of bottomland hardwood forests left in Tennessee and remains an untouched natural area for rare plants. The last bluff, in downtown Memphis, was originally Chief Chisca’s Chickasaw fortress. It became French Fort Assumption in 1739 and Spanish Fort San Fernando in 1795. Americans ran Fort Pickering here first as a trading post until 1814 and then hollowed out Chisca’s mounds and mounted artillery on top of them during the Civil War. Today, Chickasaw Heritage Park preserves what remains of this Native American and military history.
SIX - LEGENDS of BLUES AND A GREAT MAN OF LETTERS
The region around the Great River Road has been home to many famous American musicians and artists. Beale Street in Memphis has become the repository of blues music history and culture, preserving the music of sharecroppers and river folk.
Tipton County was the birthplace of soul and funk legend Isaac Hayes, a talented composer who created film scores and released numerous award-winning records. Ripley was home to two major legends of blues, Sleepy John Estes and Peetie Wheatstraw, who both lent their talents to the development of the art form as masterful guitarists. Both men helped to make blues popular, and their music can still be enjoyed around the world today. Harmonica maestro John Henry Barbee was from Henning and appeared on records with blues godfathers Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf.
Drawing on the stories of his extended family, author Alex Haley helped to compellingly recreate the experience of African-American slaves in the South in his acclaimed novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The 1976 book won a Pulitzer Prize and its television adaptation won over 145 awards, including nine Emmys.
Haley is buried on the grounds of his grandparents’ home in Henning at the Alex Haley House and Museum, a Tennessee state-owned historic site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The University of Tennessee Libraries maintains a collection of Alex Haley's personal works in its Special Collections Department, and a there is a statue honoring him in Knoxville, the city that would be his home in his final years.
On the Great River Road, history is everywhere: in the cotton fields and Civil War battle sites, and in the lakes, rivers, and rich farmlands that have shaped the culture of the people here. Listen to the rushing water of the river and learn about the life and commerce it has carried, and hear Delta blues with roots as deep as native crops. The story of the Great River Road is the story of “Old Man River,” always changing with the flow of time and season.