Story of Presidents Island
The industrial build-up along the main roads of President's Island leaves few clues to the checkered past of this section of Memphis, but the approximately 10,000-acre island does indeed have a history as colorful as some of the better known areas of town.
Where industrial plants, warehouses and storage tanks now reign has in the past been home to moonshiners and gamblers, penal farm inmates, yellow fever refugees, freed slaves, sharecroppers and an assortment of others, some honest and hardworking, some less so.
What the island has never had, despite speculation associated with its name, is a strong link with a president. Some sources have conjectured that the island was named for President Andrew Jackson, who by some accounts briefly owned property on the island. However, most local historians believe that Jackson never owned island property and that the name President's Island long predates his 1829-1837 presidency.
The name President or President's Island appeared as early as 1801 or 1802 in a river guide called Cramer's Navigator, according to Ed Williams, a local engineer who has done research on the island in connection with his business. The name referred to the island's size,-the largest in the Mississippi River-at a time when the title "president" carried much significance to the citizens of the young democracy.
The river landmark was identified on a 1796 map as Great Island, also apparently a reference to its size that was carried over into the newer name, according to local writer and historian Perre Magness.
In those days President's Island was truly an island and at one point had even been two islands separated by a channel. Old river maps identify the northern third of the present island as Vice President's Island. However, a flood control and industrial development plan of the late 1940s dammed the section of the river between the island and the east bank and created a peninsula.
But for most of its history, the island was surrounded by the river and subject to its power. Floods interfered with attempts to raise crops and endangered the lives of those who had settled there. But the island's relative isolation and untamed landscape made it a favored location for various illicit activities, including gambling, cockfights, and late night shipping of moonshine across the channel.
Attempts to use the island for some productive purposes probably began around the time the city of Memphis was established. Farming was somewhat risky, due to the floods, but attempts persisted. Residents often built their houses on stilts to combat the flooding, although periodic high flood waters still forced evacuations or rescue attempts. Other enterprises were tried as well during and after the Civil War. For example, the Freedmen's Bureau established a camp on the island for freed slaves in 1865. About 1,500 former slaves stayed in the camp until they were absorbed into the community, according to a 1947 article in the Commercial Appeal.
Some years later, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest contracted with local officials to establish a penal farm on the island, using able-bodied prisoners in the corn and the cotton fields. Having lost a fortune in the Civil War and through unprofitable railroad investments, Forrest was in search of new and lucrative opportunities and was one of the first to try to develop a business (of sorts) on the island.
He offered to pay the county 10 cents a day for each worker and to provide food, clothing and housing. His offer was accepted, and a five-year contract was signed. However, Forrest died in 1877, possibly of dysentery from drinking impure island water. Responding to stories that the prisoners had been mistreated, a grand jury investigated the prison farm and recommended some changes in the operation. In 1878, another penal farm contract was signed with Forrest's son William.
The island served another purpose in that era too. Yellow fever swept the city in 1878 killing thousands, and hundreds of people fled to the island hoping to escape from the infection that was rampant in town. The city had also purchased land on the island for a quarantine camp to be used during the recurring epidemics.
Better sanitation and health care eventually lessened the threat of yellow fever, and President's Island became better known as the site of several large farms as well as a number of smaller ones. Crops raised on the island included corn, cotton and soybeans; cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys were raised there as well. A 1947 newspaper article claimed that the soil on the island was among the most fertile in the Memphis area thanks to long years of flooding, while other sources indicate the soil was more marginal. Still, enough farming continued to enable a one-room school for sharecroppers' children to remain open until 1950. That school building was relocated to the Mid-South Fairgrounds as an exhibit.
However, the island was never heavily populated, and the number of residents declined during the first few decades of the 20th century. In the book Memphis Sketches, local author Paul Coppock speculates that modern levees confined water better than older, lower levees, making flood waters rise higher. The older levees often broke and let the water spread out. This side effect of progress in flood control may have contributed to the population loss, Coppock says.
During the Prohibition era, the island was a haven for moonshiners who operated in the more isolated areas. Revenue officers frequently raided the island but were unable to wipe out the lucralive moonshining business. Eventually, several factors forced city leaders to start looking at the island as more than farmland or a site for mischief. First, by the mid-1940s, the city had run out of riverfront sites for industries that wanted to take advantage of barge transportation, according to Coppock in Memphis Sketches. This was an unacceptable fact for a city whose existence had been based on river trade, Coppock noted. Second, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to encourage river transportation while ensuring that development on the island would not hinder flood control.
The four Memphians most responsible for the transformation of President's Island were Frank C. Pidgeon, businessman and first chairman of the Memphis and Shelby County Port Authority; E.H. Crump, businessman and political leader; Kenneth McKellar, a Tennessee senator whose position as chairman of the Appropriations Committee was instrumental in funding the project; and Jack Carley, an editorial writer for the Commercial Appeal. Gen. M.C. Tyler, former president of the Mississippi River Commission, was also instrumental in plans for island development. The island was annexed by the city in 1947.
The basic development plan called for closing the Tennessee Chute that separated the island from the east bank, thus creating a deep-water harbor (later named McKellar Lake) accessible by a channel at the south end of the island. The Flood Control Act of 1946 allocated $17 million for the project, and construction by the Corps of Engineers began in 1948.
Work included an earthen dam 6,800 feet long, 6 million cubic yards of industrial fill, a pumping station and a levee. A towboat channel was dredged, with the sand and mud pumped up to carve the channel spread out to raise the southeastern edge of the island above the highest recorded flood level. Highways and railroad tracks came next. Land that had been valued at $34 an acre before development went on the market for $6,000 an acre afterward. To buy an industrially developed acre today would cost at least $50,000, according to the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission.
The first industrial facility on the island was the H.C. Sinclair Co. bulk fuel terminal. About 150 businesses now occupy the roughly 1,000 acres of industrial land, providing 4,000 to 5,000 jobs. Approximately 95% of the industrial land has been developed, according to Randy Richardson of the Port Commission, while about 3,500 acres of land, mostly in the flood plain, are still used for agriculture, and several thousand acres are woodlands.
Some 20 or 30 years from now, if things proceed as planned, an additional 100 to 150 acres of land will be available for industrial development. Plans call for the Port Commission to extend the industrial area toward the Mississippi by building up more land with dredge material. However, the effect on the river in terms of increased pressure on levee walls upstream would have to be evaluated, Richardson said.
Despite the decades of improvement, though, traces of the "wild" President's Island persist. According to Richardson, the island is home to a diverse wildlife habitat, although hunting and fishing are prohibited by law.
Special Thanks to Mr. Nicholas Vrettos of the Presidents Island restaurant “The Port”, for use of his Island History.