War, Fever and Innovation

Although many Americans think of the Civil War as the most important to the South, Memphis history buff Jimmy Ogle says that the War of 1812 is his favorite war and the one “most formative to Memphis.” It was in 1819 that the founders of Memphis – John Overton, Andrew Jackson and James Winchester – drew up the basic plans for the city.

In fact, the city was not even incorporated until 1849. The Appeal newspaper began in 1841, Elmwood Cemetery in 1852 and the Memphis to Charleston Railroad completed in 1857. “The railroad was the first to link the Atlantic to the Mississippi,” Ogle says. Steamboats plied the river in what were our first indications that we would be a logistics hub.

But the Civil War did hit Memphis. “The largest inland battle of the war was at Mud Island,” Ogle told the meeting of the Midtown Republican Club. “Five thousand people watched the battle like it was an NFL football game. It only lasted 90 minutes,” he said. That was in June of 1862; after that Union forces took the city.

Another disaster hit with the sinking of the Sultana, the steamboat that exploded near Memphis, killing 1,800 passengers. It still ranks as the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Fate wasn’t through with us yet. Ogle says “what the Civil War didn’t do to Memphis, the mosquito did.” The yellow fever killed 5,000 and we lost three fourths of our population as people fled from it. We became a taxing district run by the Tennessee General Assembly.”

It didn’t get us down. In the 1880s we built a water sewer system that was a model for the nation. (Ogle said he conducted tours of Memphis storm drains, until he got a cease and desist letter from the city.) A little known fact is that “Thomas Edison lived here for a while at Court and North Lauderdale. He was always getting fired for his creations and leaving to go elsewhere.

“The rural park movement came here in the 1900s and in 1906 Overton Park was built. In 1916 we changed the way America shopped and the first Piggly Wiggly was built in 1916 at Main and Jefferson where there is a Courtyard by Marriott hotel now.”

Ogle then discussed the recent Commercial Appeal article that talked about the city having four mayors in 39 hours. “But that was not the first time that happened. In 1916 the state ousted him for not enforcing prohibition. “Crump got a court to rule that the ouster was for his previous term. He then was sworn in as mayor again and promptly resigned and put a crony in his place as he then did again in 1940.

Tomorrow: The 20th century saw Memphis take the lead in many areas of American life and Ogle says when it comes to music “all roads led to Memphis.”

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