Memorable Mighty Mississippi ‘Mud’ Museum : Memphis Center Is Devoted to History of That Ol’ Man River

Times Staff Writer

This is the place to find out everything and anything you would ever want to know about Ol’ Man River.

Mud Island was an ugly wart on the Memphis downtown shoreline ever since the two-mile-long, half-mile-wide river bar started forming, reportedly around a sunken Union gunboat, in the 1860s.

It is like the toad that became a prince.

Four years ago 50 acres of the accumulated weed-choked pile of silt, dirt and debris were converted into the $63-million Mud Island Cultural and Educational Center dedicated to interpret and preserve the history of one of the world’s great waterways.


Teachers, students, writers, researchers, historians, scientists and just plain folks come to Mud Island to learn about the 2,348-mile-long river’s contributions to the folklore and development of America’s heartland.

Historical Tribute

Mud Island, constructed, owned and operated by the city of Memphis, is a tribute to the Mississippi River from prehistoric to present featuring the history, legends, lore, music, accomplishments, disasters, heroes, scalawags and villains whose lives have been entwined with the “Father of Waters.”

It is the Indians who first called the river Misi Sipi which means “Father of Waters” in Algonquin.


For want of a better name the people of Memphis dubbed the eyesore at their downtown doorstep Mud Island generations ago, a name that stuck.

It was always hoped flood waters would wash it downstream. Several futile efforts were made over the years to blast it apart.

But Mud Island is still here, transformed from a blemish on the Memphis skyline to a Mississippi gem, the only place on Earth that showcases a river in all its aspects.

Mud Island, the Mississippi River museum, is many things. It’s a huge three-story concrete complex filled with 18 galleries telling the river’s story in thousands of artifacts, photographs and memorabilia collected from the headwaters at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to the delta south of New Orleans.

To get to Mud Island visitors ride a one-third-mile Swiss-Italian monorail from downtown Memphis. The monorail is suspended from a cable above the river as it makes its way to the island.

Inside the River Center visitors climb aboard the three decks of a full-scale reproduction of the front third of an 1870 paddle wheeler, the Belle of the Bluffs.

Recorded Ambiance

The steamboat is anchored in fast-flowing water. The decking and rails slant as they did aboard the old river boats. Sounds of activity on the river, the ambiance of another era, fill the air from hidden speakers.


It’s as though the clock were turned back and you are sailing down the river as you walk a lower deck piled high with bales of cotton, stroll along the main deck and through the Grand Salon or look out from the wheelhouse.

From the paddle wheeler a walkway leads to a darkened room containing a full-size reconstruction of the front quarter of a Union gunboat also “afloat” in the museum. Shots fire out from Confederate soldiers on a bluff above the gunboat. Cannons fire from the tinclad in the simulated battle.

In an adjacent exhibit area the story of the Civil War on the Mississippi is graphically explained with photographs, uniforms, flags, weapons, graphics and models of timberclads and tinclads (river boats converted into war ships) that fought in the battle between the states.

The early life of the Mississippi from 1200 B.C. to 1860 is traced with hundreds of artifacts left behind by Indians, explorers and pioneer settlers.

Life-like mannequins in their natural surroundings depict many of the characters of the Mississippi’s past. Mark Twain spins yarns about everyday life on the river.

The year is 1870 and famed white-whiskered river boat skipper T. P. Leathers tells what it’s like to be captain of the Natchez, the biggest, fanciest, fastest steamboat on the river.

Infamous 19th-Century river boat gambler George Devol, a master of deception, is shown at a steamboat card table substituting a stacked deck in the middle of a deal.

Other life-like figures in costumes of the day describe on tape what it was like to live and work on the river, including a levy builder, a lantern keeper, showboat performers and river pilots.


The Hall of River Music traces the birth of the blues in Memphis, New Orleans and other river cities, the development of folk, jazz, ragtime and country, the contributions of legends like Charlie Patton, W. C. Handy, Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Al Green and Fats Domino.

Beale Street’s Yellow Dog Cafe, a 1920 honky tonk from W. C. Handy’s time, has been re-created. Handy’s original manuscripts of songs including “Hesitation Blues,” the “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues” are displayed.

“Honey, this is where it all began and what the blues are all about,” blues singer Earlice Taylor, 42, explained to a group of 82 Elliston Baptist Academy children in the Hall of River Music.

Four-Beat Blues

“The blues are simple, four-beat songs that tell the story of the people livin’ along the river, songs like down-the-dirt-road blues, delta blues, the city blues, the country blues.”

Taylor sang a repertoire of W. C. Handy blues accompanied by Club Handy piano-man Solomon McDaniel, 37.

Several hundred schoolchildren visiting Mud Island this particular day not only viewed the exhibits but were also treated to a series of short plays about the river written and produced by widely acclaimed black Memphis playwright Levi Frazier Jr.

One reenacted the floods of 1927 when, Frazier narrated, “20,000 black, white, rich and poor worked day and night together up and down the Mississippi shoring up the levies trying to keep the water off the land. . . .”

The Theater of Disasters shows films of river tragedies throughout the decades, old Newsreels and March of Time film clips, movies about river disasters, the great earthquake of 1811, yellow fever epidemics, steamboat fires, sinkings and collisions, floods.

Mud Island also has a half-mile-long flowing scale model of 988 miles of the lower Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill., to the delta, complete with twists, turns, bridges, levies and streets of 20 river towns in mosaic.

The river walk on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River is exact in its topographic contour including all the holes, sand bars, bends and oxbow lakes. As visitors stroll along, the busy commercial Mississippi boat traffic passes by a few feet away.