Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Memphis Elevator: What was it?

Cooper Robertson's 2002 Master Plan and others have suggested that Beale Street Landing might be reminiscent of the old "Memphis Elevator." What was it?

It was a city-block-sized warehousing facility and dock that existed at Beale Street for about six years (1872-1878) until it burned down. There are no pictures of it, but it was said to be several floors high and built into the incline of the sloped landing. Goods to be shipped entered at the top floor (east side), and could be lowered by an elevator to the level of a floating dock on the west side. The lower floors were open and designed to be flooded by the Mississippi's varied levels.

Click here to read more.Here is what the Garrow Report (January 1996, pp.29-31) said:

The significance of the South Memphis Landing to the city's river commerce changed dramatically in 1871 with the start of construction on the Vicksburg & St. Louis Anchor Line's massive freight elevator at the floor of Beale Street, which was completed July 17, 1872, at a cost of approximately $125,000.[1]

Maps indicate that the footprint of the building stretched more than a city block, from the North side of McCall Street to the south side of of Beale Street [2] (Figure 12), "covering nearly an acre of ground".[3] Like a grain elevator, this facility was built as a storage and transfer building on the river landing that could handle material cooperatively among many owners. Unlike a grain elevator, this facility was built to handle "packaged" goods in crates or barrels in both large and small quantities, ready to be loaded onto packet boats from its riverside floating dock.

The scant descriptions of this facility suggest that the elevator stood three or four "stories" high and open to the elements except for the top floor, which was enclosed for offices and other facilities.[4][5] The structure was built so that rising river waters might inundate one floor, leaving the next higher floor operational for storage and distribution of the material to the floating dock. Though undocumented, the movement of freight up or down inside the building was likely assisted by a rudimentary freight elevator.

There are no known contemporary photographs or drawings of the elevator. However, descriptions of it and a conceptual drawing of the facility are contained in the "Steamboats in the Lower Mississippi River" Manuscript Collection.[6] According to these materials and contemporary descriptions in the local newspapers, the elevator was stepped into the embankment of the bluff, with its entrance in the uppermost floor near the high water mark. Freight entering the building at the upper floor could be stored for weeks, if necessary, before being lowered to the appropriate floor for loading onto steamboats.

On July 1, 1878, the steamer Capitol City caught fire while tied to the dock of the elevator, and the strong westward winds that evening quickly spread the fire to the elevator building itself.[7] The structure was totally destroyed. At the time, the elevator was holding an estimated 2,500 Barrels of flour, cornmeal, and tar, 600 sacks of oats, brand and cornmeal, and 700 barrels of cottonseed oil, representing the goods of 20 or more local firms.[8] Two persons on board the Capitol City died in the blaze. The total loss was variously estimated at between $125,000 and $200,000. The pilings at the second floor level were all that remained of the great building by mid-afternoon the next day.[9]

The loss of the freight elevator was a great blow to the City of Memphis. The Anchor Line did not respond to the calls to rebuild the facility and abandoned the site instead. A similar facility, known as the Memphis Package Elevator, was built by another company in the early 1980s on the north end of the levee in the vicinity of the Mississippi & Tennessee Railroad Depot at Jefferson and Chickasaw streets.[10]

1. Memphis Daily Appeal, 3 July 1878).
2. Boyle & Chapman, 1872, Map of Memphis, Tennessee. In the Boyle and Chapman Memphis City Directory for 1872-73. Boyle & Chapman, Memphis.
3. Memphis Daily Appeal, 3 July 1878).
4. Public Ledger, 4 July 1878.
5. Commercial Appeal, 15 January 1941.
6. William H. Tippett, ca. 1967, housed in the History Department of the Memphis and Shelby County and Information Service
7. Public Ledger, 2 July 1878
8. Public Ledger, 4 July 1878
9. Public Ledger, 3 July 1878
10. Sholes Memphis Directory for 1882. Sholes Co., Memphis.

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