Union Street: A Thoroughfare and a Boundary, 1830 – 1850

This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in July 2022.

Union as a Street

In the 1830s, Memphis was a fledgling frontier town without many municipal amenities. Reuben Davis, an early visitor, observed:

“Memphis was then a small town, ugly, dirty, and sickly, with miserable streets . . . For many years, the population would be rough and lawless, and the locality and sanitary conditions of the town promised that disease and death would hold high carnival there.”

The city’s population boomed – exploding from just over 600 residents in 1830 to over 8,000 by 1850. The wide streets and spacious lots city planners envisioned soon succumbed to quick construction.

Ill-maintained dirt streets were a regular source of discontent for residents. It was not until 1845 that street maintenance became an annual budget item. Even then, the bad streets remained a public safety issue. An 1846 Appeal article about a destructive fire on Front Street praised, “…the exertions of our firemen, who were as efficient as they could be after dragging their engines through our shameful streets of mud up to their waterboxes.”  In 1848, writers in The Tri-Weekly Memphis Enquirer bemoaned that city leaders had not kept up with promises to grade and gravel all the city streets. When streets were graded, enslaved or immigrant laborers did the work.

The Memphis Daily Eagle, May 2,1848.

If you were to walk or ride down Union Street (as it was originally called) during the town’s early decades, the street would be unrecognizable. Beginning on the western edge, you would be up against the Mississippi River. The South Memphis Landing, also called Beale Street or Hart’s Landing, stretched south between Union Avenue and Beale Street beginning around 1838. To the north, the Cobblestone Landing stretched up to Jefferson Avenue beginning circa 1850. You could board Captain G.A. Brinkley’s Memphis and Arkansas steam packet ferry boat “at the foot of Union street” to make the journey over the river.

Ad for a ferry that picked up passengers at the foot of Union Street.
Ad in The Memphis Daily Eagle, November 30, 1847.

If you went in the other direction along the dusty or muddy street, weather depending, you would notice that Union began this period sparsely constructed and populated. The author of the Memphis City Directory, published in 1849, remembered:

“In 1841, Memphis extended very little below Poplar Street, there being at that time but one brick house south of that street. In fact, as late as that year, the land upon which the Gayoso House now stands was an old field, surrounded by open wood, where the youth of the city, who have yet but sparsely cultivated beards, were in the habit of shooting squirrels and other game.”

By the end of that decade, there were some houses, storerooms for rent, and general stores selling an array of goods. Wardlow Howard built Howard’s Row, six buildings on the south side of Union at Front Street in 1848. Shoppers could purchase many commodities, including enslaved persons, from these storefronts (below).

Looking down Union Avenue. Memphis, Tennessee. June, 1937. Library of Congress. (Howard’s Row is now the home of the offices of Memphis Travel)

Crossing the planks laid across Shelby (now Front) Street at Union on a dark night, according to The Memphis Daily Eagle, caused some pedestrians to “miss the trick, and go floundering and splashing, and heaping irreverent maledictions upon the authorities, through a fine miniature bog.”

As you progressed eastward, you would use a footbridge to cross over the Gayoso Bayou, a smelly, open floodplain that drained stormwater runoff toward the Wolf River. This footbridge and others like it could be washed out in heavy rains. The Gayoso formed the original eastern boundary of the city. By 1849, the city had expanded, and you could take Union to Dunlap Street and still be within the city limits.

Union as a Border

It was not a foregone conclusion in the 1840s that Memphis would be the dominant town on the Mississippi River’s Fourth Bluff. One of the city’s rivals was the incorporated town of South Memphis, whose origins lay in the original 1784 land grants to John Rice and James Ramsey. The Rice land became Memphis; the Ramsey tract was equally well situated along the river and was seen as an alternative location for a city. The border between these two land parcels was Union Street. 

Robertson Topp, a lawyer and real estate speculator from Nashville, eventually owned the riverfront portion of the Ramsey tract, and he filed a plan for his new South Memphis settlement in January 1839, stretching from Union to the northern border of the Fort Pickering neighborhood. Fort Pickering was an unincorporated community laid out in 1840 that boasted the western terminus of the Memphis and LaGrange Railroad. 

Compared to Memphis, lots were bigger in South Memphis, and the neoclassical Gayoso House that opened on Shelby Street in 1843 was more elegant than any of the existing buildings in either city. South Memphis also had its own newspaper, The Enquirer, edited by Francis S. Latham.

South Memphis developed in an orderly fashion, particularly because Topp approved each applicant who wanted to move into his town. In contrast, Memphis was a frontier city with a high number of transients passing through the town.The Louisiana Purchase, which opened land to the west of the Mississippi River to American conquest, was a mere forty years old, and Arkansas did not become a state until June 1836. Memphis was a logical place to stop and then continue on the way to western states and territories. As a result, transients burdened what sanitation facilities existed and did not contribute taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements. Not helping matters was rampant corruption by Memphis aldermen, whose arbitrary actions were not restrained by a strong city charter.

Animosities between the two cities were fierce. It did not help that Democrats ran Memphis while Whigs, under the strong management of Topp, controlled South Memphis. Whigs were often native-born Americans who wanted a strong federal government, a national bank, and protective tariffs. Before the Civil War, Democrats emphasized individual rights and state sovereignty and opposed central banks and high tariffs. Frequently, immigrants identified with the Democratic party.

A major source of tension was fear over monopolizing river traffic. The debacle over wharf boat master A.B. Shaw is what led South Memphians to decide to incorporate their town. The wharf master kept logs of transactions and collected fees from flatboatmen working the river, which made his boat a center of the community’s economy. At one point, Shaw moved his boat from the Memphis landing to dock in front of South Memphis, an economic setback for Memphis and a boon for South Memphis. Memphis tried to force Shaw back by issuing a $100 a day fine (over $3,000 in 2022), which was disallowed by the courts. Unsurprisingly, Shaw decided to stay in South Memphis.

The drama brought into stark relief for South Memphians that they did not want to be annexed by Memphis, so they sent a bill of incorporation to the state legislature and received notice of their incorporation in December 1845. 

For five years, Union Street and political parties separated these two cities. But by 1849, a reunification effort, ironically led by Topp, was underway. Topp was a major backer of the Memphis-Charleston Railroad project, and it was imperative for the two cities to unite and work together to raise $500,000 ($18.5 million in 2022) to pay for their portion of the rail line. Otherwise, the rail terminus could go to another city. 

The movement to unify Memphis and South Memphis gained momentum throughout 1849, and reporters used Union Street rhetorically in their reunification articles. In one example, a writer for The Memphis Daily Eagle, which was in favor of reunification, satirically announced on April 12, 1849:

Important Work! We have just learnt that South Memphis, much alarmed at the belligerent demonstrations made by our City Council, has determined to fortify herself by building a brick wall along the centre [sic] of Union street, from the River to the Bayou, The work is to commence immediately, and to be urged night and day, so as to be finished at the expiration of the Thirty Day’s Truce. Those wishing to contract for the work will please hand their bids into the Rialto before ten o’clock this morning. Things look stormy. War impends over our community, and civic Buonapartes are dreaming of battle, holding council on doorsteps and deliberately “whittling sticks!”

The Memphis Daily Eagle  followed up in November 1849, asking, “Is it possible that gentlemen doing business in one city and residing in the other can find such diversity of interests as to forbid an union? If so, let us have a wall, a Chinese wall, built upon the centre of Union street; and let none pass or repass except upon sentinel challenge and answering watchword…But seriously, we hope citizens will not give a hasty or idle decision against the proposed union.”

The “Union Charter” with its added railroad tax passed by referendum vote on November 15, 1849, by a margin of three to one. Memphis’s first annexation of another incorporated town merged the sister cities, and the enlarged city’s southern border moved to Calhoun Street. 

Union Street was a boundary no more. 

Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.

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