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.

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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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