The Great South - Down the Mississippi


Passing Columbus and Hickman, two thriving towns on the Kentucky shore, and the ruins of the fortifications on “Island Number Ten” an island rapidly sinking in Mississippi’s insidious embrace—past Fort Pillow—now rounding bends which took us miles out of our way, and now venturing through “cut-offs,” made by the sudden action of the resistless flood, we skirted along the vast, desolate Arkansas shore, reached the third Chickasaw bluff on the Tennessee side, and saw the city of Memphis before us.

Memphis is the chief city of Western Tennessee, and indeed of the whole State. It has been well and widely known ever since the five-thousand-acre tract on the fourth Chickasaw Bluff on which the city now stands, came into the possession of Judge Overton, Major Winchester, and General Andrew Jackson, the original proprietors. From the river Memphis presents quite an imposing appearance, stately piles of buildings running along the bluff at whose foot stretches a levee similar to those of all the other river towns. Opposite to it, on the west bank of the Mississippi, is the level line of the Arkansas bottom, whose lowlands are often submerged, and from a ferry station at Hopefield a railroad leads to Little Rock, the Arkansas capital. The streets of Memphis are broad, regular, and lined with handsome buildings; there is but one drawback to their perfection, and that is a Nicholson pavement, so badly put down, and so poorly cared for, that a ride over it in an omnibus is almost unendurable.

In the center of the town is an exquisite little park, filled with delicate foliage, where a bust of Andrew Jackson frowns upon the tame squirrels frisking around it, or climbing on the visitor’s shoulders and exploring his pockets for chestnuts.
City Park, Memphis

 Since the terrible visitation of yellow fever in 1873, the city government has made most extraordinary efforts to secure perfect drainage and cleanliness in the streets; and Memphis certainly compares favorably in this respect with any of its river sisters, northern or southern. On the avenues leading from the river towards the open country, there are many lovely residences surrounded by cool and inviting lawns; the churches and school buildings are handsome and numerous, and there is an air of activity and thrift in the city which I was not prepared to find manifested after the severe experiences through which the city has passed. Several good newspapers,—the “Avalanche,” the “Appeal,” the “Ledger” and the “Register,”—do much to enliven Memphis and the highly prosperous county of Shelby, in which it stands; and the carnival in winter and the cotton trade until midsummer make excitement the rule. Those who fancied Memphis “dead” after the yellow fever’s ghastly visitation were wrong; the number of business houses in the city has increased ten per cent, since that terrible event, and the number of physicians, curious to note, has decreased in exactly the same proportion. The wholesale trade has been growing enormously, and the influx of population has been so very considerable, that Memphis claims to-day about 65,000 inhabitants. Great injustice has been done the city in former times by the false statement extensively published that, after Valparaiso and Prague, Memphis had the highest death rate in the world. The cemetery on the Chickasaw bluff, besides receiving the dead of the city itself serves as the burial place for the dead of all the migratory multitudes who toil up and down the currents of the half dozen giant streams which bring trade and people to Memphis. It is quite probable, whatever appearances may indicate, that the death rate of Memphis is no higher than that of any city in the central valley of the Mississippi. The city itself occupies a tract of three square miles. Opposite it is the center of a district, one hundred miles square, east of the White and St. Francis rivers and west of the Mississippi, which has been for ages enriched by the alluvial deposits brought by the mighty river. It is said that in this area there are five millions of acres, each one of which is capable of producing annually a bale of cotton. This plain, says a local writer, “was the rich granary of the city of the mound-builders, once occupying, as suggested by the great mounds on the city’s southern confines, the heights on which Memphis stands.” North of the city lies the famous Big Creek section, the home of many opulent cotton planters before the war, but now but little cultivated, and with many of its fine lands deserted.

Memphis is very near the center of the cotton belt, and has an enormous supply trade with Arkansas, Mississippi, Western Tennessee and Northern Alabama. The export trade of inland ports like Memphis, Macon and Augusta has become so great that the railroads have accorded them very low rates. Much of the cotton once sent to New Orleans is now shipped directly across the country to Norfolk. The railroad system of Memphis is already very important—as follows: The Memphis and Charleston road extends to Stevenson in North Alabama, and connects with routes to Norfolk and the sea, as well as with those running northward. It is at present under a lease to the Southern Railway Security Company, but it is expected that the control of the line will in time return to the stockholders. Next in importance is the Louisville and Nashville and Great Southern Railroad, sometimes called the Memphis and Ohio. This line extends to Paris, Tenn., connecting thence to Louisville, Ky., and with the Memphis and Clarkville, and Louisville and Nashville, roads. The Mississippi and Tennessee road extends from Memphis to Grenada, a “smart” town in the former state, and runs through an excellent cotton raising, although thinly settled, country, for one hundred miles, connecting by the Mississippi Central with New Orleans. The road to Little Rock gives connection with the network in which Texas is tangled; and the Memphis and Paducah, only partially completed, is extended to give almost an air line to Chicago. The Memphis and Selma road is also begun. But the project considered of most importance by the citizens of Memphis is the contemplated road from Kansas City to Memphis, which would render the latter independent of and in direct competition with St. Louis.

The cotton trade of Memphis represents from $35,000,000 to &40,000,000, annually. Its growth has been extraordinary. In 1860-1 Memphis received nearly four hundred thousand bales. She then had also an extensive tobacco trade, which the war took from her, and which has never been returned. After the war production was so crippled that there was but a gradual return to the old figures in the cotton trade, as shown by the appended table.

  Year   Bales.
  1867-8   254,240
  1868-9   247,698
  1869-70   247,654
  1870-71   511,432
  1871-72   380,934
  1872-73   414,955
  1873-4 up to April   398,637

The cotton received at Memphis comes mainly from Western Tennessee, Northern and Central Alabama, the same sections of Mississippi. and Arkansas, as far south as Chicot. The South-eastern portion of Missouri also furnishes some cotton to Memphis. The market is made up of buyers from New England and the northern spinning element generally, and from Liverpool, Manchester, and the continental ports. Nearly one-third of the receipts, it is said, are now taken by foreign shippers. Of course the greater portion of those purchases goes to Europe via Norfolk, New York or Boston, but one German buyer this season shipped forty thousand bales via New Orleans and the Gulf. The character of the cotton is such as to make it specially sought after by all classes of spinners. As a cotton port Memphis is independent of New Orleans, and this independence has been recently achieved. Of the entire crop brought into Memphis in 1860-1 there were 184,366 bales sent to the Louisiana metropolis whereas in 1872—3 scarcely 25,000 bales were sent there for market. The prices are so nearly up to those of New Orleans as not to leave a margin. The Louisville and Nashville road takes a great deal of cotton northward, and the various packet lines to St. Louis, Cairo, Cincinnati, Evansville, and Cannelton, carry many hundreds of bales. There are so many lines that Memphis is never blockaded. As a single item of commerce, that of cotton there is enormous, amounting at the average price in value to something like $28,000,000. It is calculated that the whole commerce of Memphis foots up $62,000,000 yearly. It is the main supply point for a vast region. Thousands on thousands of barrels of flour, pork, bales of hay, sacks of oats, barrels of corn meal, are brought in on the Mississippi river and thence distributed. Besides handling one-eighth of the entire cotton crop of the United States, Memphis has thus far kept in food as well as in courage a very large portion of the half discouraged planters of the South; her merchants having made great efforts to accommodate themselves to the new order of things. So changed are all the conditions under which planters labor, and so evident is it that the character of planting or farming must change a good deal, that the merchants themselves are beginning to doubt the real beneficence of the supply system. At Memphis one hears a great deal of the miseries and vexations of both laborers and capitalists in the cotton country.

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