Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance: What was the name of that little trolley-shaped diner they built on Main Street Mall, and what happened to it?
— K.T., Memphis.
Dear K.T.: Although the Lauderdales acquired vast wealth because of savvy business decisions, sometimes we struck out. One time our pal Kemmons Wilson approached Father about investing in his new chain of hostelries. With so many thriving tourist courts on every highway in America, we considered it a foolish undertaking, and so lost out on a chance to own a 99 percent stake in Holiday Inn. Years later, another family friend, Fred Smith, invited us to join his overnight delivery service. Why anyone would send their letters and packages on those newfangled jets, when they could transport them on the majestic Lauderdale Line of dirigibles, baffled us, so once again we said no. I think about that decision every time a gleaming FedEx jet flies over our mansion.
But on one occasion, we made the right decision. Back in the mid-1970s, a Kentucky businessman named John Brown came to the Lauderdales, urging us to purchase a franchise in a fast-food outlet that he called Ollie's Trolley. We declined, and we've never regretted it.
Brown was, and still is, an impressive figure in these parts. Among other accomplishments, he served as the governor of Kentucky, purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Colonel Harlan Sanders and turned it into a jillion-dollar empire, started the successful Lum's chain of restaurants, and ended up marrying a Miss America (Phyllis George). At one point, he was even the owner of the Boston Celtics basketball team.
In so many ways, his life has paralleled my own.
In the 1970s, he came up with the notion of building fast-food outlets in replicas of old-fashioned streetcars. Each Ollie's Trolley was a tiny place, with just a counter inside. They bragged that they cooked "the world's best hamburger" with 23 special herbs and spices, which they called "Ollieburgers," and also offered typical diner fare like hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, Ollie's fries, and milkshakes.
The first Ollie's Trolley opened in Louisville in the mid-1970s, and the company quickly built more than a hundred, most of them east of the Mississippi. The photo here shows, as far as I know, the only Ollie's in Memphis, under construction in 1976 on Main Street Mall, just across from City Hall. I barely remember the bright red-and-yellow structure, so can't say for certain whether the Ollieburger was indeed "the world's best."
Ollie's Trolley was a rare business failure for Brown, and the Memphis location, along with most others, closed after just a few years. Drive-through eateries like McDonald's and Wendy's were more convenient, it seems, since Ollie's only offered walk-up service, and even if you wanted to eat inside a little streetcar, you couldn't. All they had were some tables and benches outside. In fact, I don't think the place even had a bathroom for customers. A few Ollie's have survived in other cities — Louisville, Cincinnati, and Washington, D.C. — but there's no trace of the one here.
Oh, and who was Ollie, anyway? The little trolleys were named after Ollie Gleichenhaus, a Miami restaurant owner Brown hired to oversee the Lum's chain. "Gleichenhaus' Trollies" just didn't have the right ring to it, I guess.
Dear Vance: Is it true that the old Frisco Bridge was, at one time, the longest bridge in North America? That's hard to believe.
— D.F., Memphis
Dear D.F.: Well, I haven't actually measured it and compared it to other structures built at the time. But in its day — and we're talking 1892 here — the half-mile span of the Great Memphis Bridge (as it was then called) was indeed promoted as not only the longest in North America, but the third longest in the world. And I'll take their word for it.
Since it's not a highway bridge, most Memphians probably never notice the Frisco Bridge, as we call it today. But as an engineering achievement, it certainly ranks as one of our city's greatest accomplishments, right up there with The Pyramid and the Zippin Pippin. Okay, maybe those are bad examples.
St. Louis had spanned the Mississippi River with its famous Eads Bridge in 1874, but no other bridges crossed the lower river in the 1800s. To reach the Arkansas side, everyone in Memphis boarded ferries — even the railroads. Trains would stop in Memphis, unhook their cars and locomotives, roll them onto ferryboats, cross the river, and hook everything back up again — an incredibly tedious and time-consuming undertaking. It wears me out just to type about it.
So the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroads began to search for a solution. They eventually hired George Morrison of Chicago, who had constructed other bridges across the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, but much farther north, where the river wasn't so wide. The Memphis bridge would be his greatest challenge.
Construction began on November 7, 1888, and newspapers said the new bridge involved "a unique scheme of such intricacy as to baffle description." It really wasn't that fancy: A series of mighty stone piers would support a cantilevered steel bridge. The immense size of it was the problem, especially when you were working with the shifting, unstable bottom of Old Man River.
Morrison's crews built box-like caissons that were lowered into the Mississippi. The water was then pumped out, allowing workers to actually stand on the dry river bottom while they built, stone by stone, the support piers. After that came a steel superstructure that weighed 9,500 tons and used some 100,000 rivets. Still not impressed? Then consider that the steel frame that linked the first two piers was the largest steel plate ever fabricated in the United States.
It was incredibly hard and dangerous work, and before the bridge was finished, four workers died in accidents.
All the sections were linked into a single span on April 6, 1892. And what a bridge it was: five steel spans soaring 2,597 feet across the river, linked to a 2,500-foot concrete viaduct that stretched over the low-lying fields of Arkansas.
The Great Bridge Celebration kicked off on May 12, 1892. Volunteers from 18 different railroads boarded locomotives lined up at the Memphis approach to the bridge, and more than 50,000 people jammed the riverbanks to watch the first crossing. Many of those apparently expected the worst. One newspaper reported, "Weeping women kissed their husbands and sweethearts goodbye, all positive the bridge would collapse with their loved ones who had volunteered for the test."
The train slowly made its way across, and — just as Morrison promised — the bridge stood. The engines roared back at full speed (I assume in reverse), and an eyewitness said, "Everyone in the boats below or along the riverbanks either shot off a gun or a firecracker. It was the most deafening and most glorious din I have ever heard."
The celebration ran into the evening and included long speeches from the governors of Tennessee and Arkansas. The keynote speaker was Indiana Senator Daniel Voorhies, known as "The Tall Sycamore of the Wabash," though I have no idea what he — or Indiana — had to do with our bridge. After that came parades ("with beautifully decorated fire engines") and a fireworks show that culminated with "an exact facsimile of the new bridge, accurately and artistically depicted in jets of fire covering a space of 1,500 feet." To help commemorate the event, the Woman's Exchange sold medallions coined from aluminum, "the beautiful new metal," and the Lauderdale Library owns one of these rare medals (shown here, complete with its original ribbon).
More than a century later, the Frisco Bridge is still standing, but I'm afraid it is no longer ranked among the world's great bridges. Not even close. Its mighty span can't compare, for example, with the Danyang-Kunshan Bridge, scheduled to open later this year in China, which has a total length of — get ready for it — 540,700 feet. That's right: a bridge more than 100 miles long. In fact, in a list of the world's 100 longest bridges, the Frisco Bridge doesn't even show up.
Well, let's just see how many of those are still standing — and carrying heavy railroad traffic at that — a hundred years from now.