The Memphis Riverfront in the Early 1900s



With all this talk lately about what to do with the riverfront and cobblestones, I'd thought I'd share a great old photo I found, taken by J.C. Coovert, a professional photographer based in Memphis who captured many scenes in this region in the early 1900s. Judging from the buildings seen in the background, this shot was taken sometime between 1907 and 1910.

First of all, you can't help noticing all the cotton, in bales and bags, just piled outside. I guess this is a stupid question, but wouldn't that stuff just swell up like a balloon if it rained?

There are lots of interesting details in the background (and just to be helpful, I've enlarged portions of the photograph below; you'll have to scroll down or go to the next page). First of all, the big white building with the twin towers (one of them, if you squint, has two clock faces), is the old U.S. Customs House, later a post office, and currently being converted into the law school for the University of Memphis. Next to it is the rounded extension of the original Cossitt Library, one of the finest buildings ever constructed in this city. Look carefully, and you can see the red-sandstone turret (it's kind of hidden behind an extremely tall telegraph/telephone pole.)

The two tall white buildings in the distance are (I believe) the Tennessee Bank and Trust Building (erected 1904-1907), and to the right of it, the Memphis Trust Company building (erected in 1904). That second building was expanded in 1914 by simply doubling the width of it; it's still standing today on Main Street as the Commerce Title Building, and if you stand in front of it, you can see the vertical seam where the addition was slapped on.

Now what's really interesting is the cute little square building, right in the top center of the main photo (and shown in detail below). It's hard to see in the scan, but wording around the edge of the roof tells everyone this was the office of "S.W. Green — Wharfmaster" and it was his job to keep track of all the boats and wagons and carts that you see here. He must have been a busy man.


The white, barn-like structure at the top of the bluff carries a huge painted sign declaring it the office of the Patterson Transfer Company — "Carriages and Baggage Wagons To Meet All Incoming Boats." Parked near it are some of those horse-drawn baggage wagons, some of them belonging to the Louisiana Railway and Navigation Company. And I can see at least one rail car (at far right in the first photo) carrying the proud name of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Awhile back I took a more recent photo (below) from about the same vantage point, but trees and new construction along Front Street make it difficult to really make a good then-and-now comparison. But if you look carefully, just to the right of the Morgan Keegan Tower, you can see the rear windows of the old Customs House, just about the only part that has remained unchanged over the years.

And yes, the cobblestones are still there.


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