The Memphis Flood Protection Walls

Most people realize that our city is perched on high bluffs that will keep most of downtown safe in case of a flood. And to the south of the city, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has erected a levee system for that same purpose — to keep high waters at bay. Anybody driving south on Highway 61 as it crosses Nonconnah Creek can look down and admire the nice levee there.

But not many people, it seems, know about the massive concrete flood wall system, part of a $12 million project completed in the late 1940s that the newspapers called "the greatest engineering project ever undertaken in this city, and probably the one most vital to our city's commercial life." If you ask me, $12 million seems kind of cheap, but that's what the newspapers said it cost.

You probably know this by now, if you've been paying the slightest bit of attention to the news lately, but in 1927 and again in 1937, vast areas of the South were flooded, driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and wrecking millions of dollars' worth of homes and businesses. Muddy waters covered much of north and south Memphis — not water from the Mississippi River, exactly, but from the flood-prone tributaries here — the Wolf River to the north, and Nonconnah Creek to the south.

Once all that water finally receded, the city government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised a vast flood-control project comprising overflow reservoirs, huge pumping stations, and miles of concrete walls and earthen levees. The flood of 1937 reached 50.4 on the river stage, the highest ever recorded, and the walls and levees are designed to protect us against a crest of 57.5 feet.

The northern section of the concrete flood wall runs roughly parallel to the Wolf River, snaking in and out of neighborhoods along Chelsea, and ending just east of North McLean. The photo above shows a section of grafitti-decorated wall at Chelsea and North Evergreen. (A chain-link fence continues eastward for a few blocks after that, but something tells me it won't hold back much water.) The southern portion, running along Nonconnah Creek, begins at Martin Luther King / Riverside Park and stretches eastward to Prospect Street, near Pine Hills Golf Course.

Gaps in the wall here and there let major streets can cross them and railroads pass through. I bet you that most motorists drive through these gaps every day without even noticing the walls themselves. Pay attention, people.

The flood walls are 12 inches thick and stand anywhere from 3 to 8 feet high, depending on their location. A 1947 newspaper article noted, "This not only provided a three-foot freeboard above what the Corps of Engineers figure to be the highest possible flood, but also provides for securing a 'mud box' to the top in case of emergencies." Beats me what a "mud box" is, but I gather that you can add more to the top of walls if you really need to.

At those gaps in the walls, there are slots on each side, so that a massive wooden gate can be dropped into place if floods threaten us — much like today, that is. The walls (and gaps) are numbered so the Corps of Engineers can find the correct gate. I don't know where all these gates are stored, but I'm just going to assume that somebody does. It would really be embarrassing if, after going to all this trouble, they couldn't find the gates in time.

Reader Comments:
May 5, 2011 05:34 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Very good work. -- Wintermute

May 6, 2011 10:01 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

My shop has the distinction of being on the "batture" side of the walls on the scenic shores of Kilowatt Lake right across from Evergreen. If the water goes up to 49 ft, it will kiss the back of my building. They're putting in the gates that would flood at 51 ft right now but won't put in the gate across McLean until it's predicted to rise to 53ft - sbanbury

May 6, 2011 10:32 am
 Posted by  Jeff

Wooden gates to stop a flood? Ha ha, that's too funny. I suspect they devised that system under the assumption it would never actually be used (during their lifetimes). I can see the city council meeting, 60 years ago, almost as though it were yesterday...

"We intend to build a magnificent concrete wall across the length and breadth of our flood prone areas. This scientifically engineered wall will keep back even the worst that nature can devise. We project it will cost a mere twelve million dollar$$$$!!!"

"Won't walls obstruct the flow of traffic?"

"Oh, we'll leave gaps in the walls wherever there is a street or railroad."

"But sir, won't gaps let the flood through the same as the traffic?"

"We'll put uh... gates there... uh... watertight wooden gates, as a purely temporary measure. In a few years, once we're all driving flying automobiles and walking to work on moving sidewalks and escalators, we won't need those gaps and can fill them in with concrete barriers."

"Excellent. I move we build the wall."

May 6, 2011 11:49 am
 Posted by  warbirdali

You must be a mindreader, watching the news they were putting the gates in and my exact thought was "We have floodgates? where?" I guess I don't frequent those areas much, or else I just thought they were nasty industrial walls. If it was nowadays a project that expensive would have been built with cheap labor/materials and wouldn't hold the water...built on the assumption that they would never be used or if they were the builder would be long gone. Also every wall would have a plaque listing all the councilmembers; Possibly "The Janis Fullilove Flood wall... guaranteed to hold liquid". I must admit I am mightily impressed that they found the gates after all these years... must be the Corp's responsibility as if it was the City's we would all be up a flooded creek. I can imagine back in the 60s: "What ARE all these fences for, man?" "Beats me let's throw 'em" Wonderful article Vance, thanks for keeping us informed although I AM a tad disappointed that you didn't find a picture of a swimsuit-clad beauty like you usually do.

May 6, 2011 12:39 pm
 Posted by  Jeff

Maybe Vance can post a picture of himself in a swimsuit, frolicking in Tom Lee Park. I'd buy a subscription to Memphis Magazine to see that!

May 6, 2011 08:14 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

According to one calculator, $12M in 1937 is equivalent to $180M today - not that cheap.

May 25, 2011 12:38 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

N. Evergreen and Chelsea is WEST of N. McLean

Mar 19, 2012 03:55 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Mar 20, 2012 07:46 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I always thought with all the military type buildings near McLean that those used to surround a millitary base of some kind.

Jul 10, 2013 02:08 pm
 Posted by  Burt Stigler

A co-worker of mine at the railroad who used to be with the City Water Works told me there's always a small building close to the gates and what they use are railroad cross ties with metal caps on the ends and they stack them in the grooves on each end of the walls.

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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