McKellar Lake

Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

Miss McKellar Lake finalists, 1964

McKellar Lake
Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.

Dear Vance: At one time, McKellar Lake was the place to be, and my family has lots of home movies of my brothers and sisters boating
and swimming there. What happened to it?
— J.R., Memphis.

Dear J.R.: Sitting in a comfortable chair? Got plenty of time on your hands? Good. Because any discussion of McKellar Lake should begin with a chat about President’s Island, and that usually provokes debates, disputes, fisticuffs, and even duels at dawn.

Not about the island itself, but about its name. Some people insist that this 10,000-acre island tucked into a loop of the Mississippi River was named in honor of Andrew Jackson. That’s an interesting theory, but “President’s Island” shows up on maps years before Old Hickory took office in 1829. Others believe that the island was called “president” because it was the largest in the Mississippi, but that seems a stretch to me. Why not just call it “Big Island” and be done with it?

And then there’s the whole business of that pesky apostrophe — is it President’s Island or Presidents’ Island or even Presidents Island? But since you didn’t ask about any of that, J.R., I’m just going to call the danged place President’s Island so we can move on.

But as I said (if you’re still following all this), you have to ponder President’s Island if you expect me to talk about McKellar Lake, because one is linked to the other.

McKellar Lake Marina

President’s Island was, at one time, little more than a sandy mound in the river, occupied by all sorts of critters and a few hardy settlers who didn’t mind the occasional flooding. The river currents swept past it on both sides — the western side being the Mississippi River, and the narrow channel on the east called the Tennessee Chute. (Look closely at the old map on the opposite page — see it?)

In the late 1940s, however, all sorts of people here — including the Lauderdales — came up with the notion that if we just built a dam across the northern end of the Tennessee Chute, President’s Island would be transformed into a sprawling peninsula that could be — and would be — developed into a sprawling riverport and industrial complex. And so it came to be, and now you can venture across the Jack Carley Causeway (named for a Commercial Appeal editor who was a long-time member of the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission), and drive past miles of heavy-duty chemical and manufacturing firms.

I know what you’re thinking: This is all very interesting, Vance, but still, what’s this got to do with McKellar Lake? Well, when the Tennessee Chute was closed off, it left a nice slackwater harbor that was named McKellar Lake, in honor of Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, who had played such a big role in getting the government funds to make all this happen.

Supplemented by a very generous donation of $49.50 from the Lauderdales, of course.

Within a few years, the new “lake” (though still open to the river at the south end) became a magnet for Memphians trying to beat the heat. My family kept our cabin cruiser, Lady Lauderdale, berthed there, alongside radio/tv pioneer Hoyt Wooten’s magnificent yacht, Elbaroda (the Spanish-sounding name is actually “adorable” spelled backwards). In the 1950s and 1960s, the lake was just packed with ski boats, houseboats, rowboats, and just about anything that could float.

McKellar Lake became such an important part of Memphis’ social life that every year we held a Miss McKellar Lake contest, and the prettiest women in the region would compete. The event was sponsored by the Memphis Park Commission, Memphis Ski Club, and the Coca-Cola Bottling Company. I’m not sure what the “talent” portion of this competition entailed; I suspect it involved how well the contestants squeezed into a swimsuit, since that’s all the newspapers ever showed. In fact, here’s a nice Press-Scimitar photo of the 1964 finalists posed on the McKellar Lake beach. According to notes scribbled on the back, these women are (left to right): Lynda Cummings, Micki Slover, Micki Dollar, Rita Raney, and Cynthia Cowgill. Some of these names sound made up to me. I mean, what are the chances that two different girls named “Micki” would end up as finalists?

A nice floating dock opened on the eastern bank of the lake, and it soon attracted people who lived year-round on houseboats there. Reached only by water, or by driving through Riverside Park, the McKellar Lake Marina became a cozy little community. In 1973, Mid-South magazine, the Sunday supplement to The Commercial Appeal, published a cover story, “Living on McKellar Lake,” which examined this curious enclave.

Reporter Thomas BeVier seemed to have mixed feelings about what he found there. Despite its sandy beaches, he described McKellar Lake as “that turgid Mississippi River backwash.” Residents of the double row of houseboats, he noted, claimed they had discovered “a down-home paradise, within 15 minutes of work, but theirs is a mud puddle sort of bliss.”

Even so, BeVier was impressed by the unique décor of many of the houseboats. “The apartments on the water — with speedboats parked under or in back — are mainly decorated in Bachelor Baroque, for wifely wardenry is not much of an influence.”

The place certainly attracted unusual characters. Back then, BeVier noted, only one married couple lived at McKellar. Mr. and Mrs. James Butler — a city fireman better known among the residents as “Buttercup” — shared their one-bedroom boat, “which looks much like a small, in-town apartment,” with a pair of pet skunks.

Then there was the unofficial “mayor” of McKellar Lake, a charismatic fellow named Marvin Shackelford, “who is a lover of adventure, tinkering, and partying.” Among other ventures, “Shack” once set a world record for water skiing, and he did it without ever leaving McKellar Lake. For 35 hours nonstop, he skied around and around in the lake — a total distance of 818 miles.

Shack’s Shack, as his boat was called, “is, well, different,” wrote BeVier. “From the moment you open the psychedically painted door and spot the fur-lined telephone on the wall, you sense that he has realized the Valhalla of a man’s fantasies.” Among other features, his home on the water included a state-of-the-art stereo system, a 12-foot padded bar with photos of female friends beneath the glass top, model airplanes dangling from the ceiling, and a rack of pellet rifles.

Even in its heyday, though, McKellar Lake could hardly be described as picturesque. The Mid-South article noted that “the view from the boathouse windows scans refineries and other industries.” Let’s face it, the Mississippi River was called “big Muddy” for a reason, and as President’s Island became more developed, the water in McKellar Lake grew more polluted — or at least that was the popular perception. The shallow lake began to silt up, causing problems for owners of larger boats. And it didn’t help that our city’s stormwater drainage system dumped into the lake millions of gallons of water that contained thousands of pieces of garbage — diapers, bottles, even discarded basketballs. Recent news stories, in fact, have documented the floating “lake of trash” that sometimes covers parts of the old harbor.

The marina, which in recent years was taken over by Buttercup but has changed hands since then, has endured, and people still live in the houseboats there. Some of these places are rather fancy, and decorated inside and out with all sorts of nautical gear, but others have seen better days, and millionaires like Hoyt Wooten no longer dock their yachts there. In some ways, however, the old Elbaroda is still around. After Wooten’s death in 1969, the yacht stayed moored at McKellar until the cypress hull split open and the boat sank. The remains were towed across the channel so they wouldn’t clog the harbor. If you know just where to look, you can still see traces of the wreck sticking out of the mud during low tide.

And the Lady Lauderdale? Oh, don’t even ask. We don’t like to talk about it. 

Got a question for Vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103

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