Monday, July 13, 2009

Turn-of-century trash gives lowdown on life then, now

This story of how City engineers clumsily started digging and stirred up a hornet's nest of trouble is reported in this October 8, 1994 story in the Commercial Appeal.

Turn-of-century trash gives lowdown on life then, now
by Tom Charlier

By all indications, they lived high and ate well. Even their garbage was first-class.

Thanks to a troubled city park project, the soft mud of the Memphis riverfront these days is yielding what appears to be evidence of the city's blue-blood past. The finds so far include fragments of long-stemmed wine glasses, fine china, ornate serving bowls and the bones of butchered animals, all apparently from an exclusive home or restaurant.

"It's an historic site," said Jim McNeil, staff archeologist for the Corps of Engineers' Memphis district. "It gives a look into Memphis in the early 1900s."

The items were found in the bottom of a pit excavated at the mouth of the Downtown Harbor as part of the Tom Lee Park renovation project. They probably are relics of a trash heap on the riverbank dating back to the turn of the century, McNeil said.

But while the discovery has excited archeologists and historians, it is proving to be a major headache for city officials. It means more delays and red tape for a project involving the relocation of the Tom Lee statue and the construction of a plaza.

Last month, the corps ordered a halt to the excavation not long after it had begun because the city hadn't obtained the permit required by environmental laws. Because the work can only be done during the brief period when the Mississippi River is at its lowest, city officials tried to pursue an "emergency" permit allowing the project to resume quickly.

The discovery of the artifacts helped quash that idea.

"We've talked about it with the city, and because of these issues and because of other concerns about issuing an emergency permit after the fact, we felt like it wouldn't be appropriate," said Larry Watson, chief of regulatory functions for the corps.

Without the emergency permit, the city will have to wait at least a month for authorization for the work. The project calls for the placement of 23,350 cubic yards of sand, filter rock and stone riprap in the excavated area to form the foundation for the statue and plaza.

In addition to the permit requirements set by the corps, the Tennessee Historical Commission wants the city to conduct further archeological testing to more fully assess the site.

In a letter to the corps this week, the commission also said Memphis should be required to prepare a plan to "mitigate," or offset, damages to the historic cobblestone area caused by the project.

The cobblestones are part of the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. According to the commission, the newly found archeological site also might be eligible for the register.

City engineer James Collins said officials haven't given up their efforts to complete the project during the current low-water season.

"We're still trying to get everything done and hope the water stays down, but frankly it doesn't look very good," he said.

If the river rises much more before the city gets approval to proceed with the work, the project will have to wait until stages return to near zero on the Memphis gauge. That probably wouldn't be until at least next summer.

McNeil said the excavation appears to have uncovered a refuse heap. He's found parts of plates, glasses, bottles, medicine containers, sawed animal bones, a dinner knife handle, part of a urinal, an oyster shell, a planter and other items. A layer of ash, probably from a stove or furnace, is intermingled with the items.

McNeil dates the material to the late 1800s or early 1900s primarily because the bottles that have been found predate the screw-on caps that arrived in about the 1920s.

Most of the items remain unguarded in the excavated pit. However, McNeil pointed out that federal laws prescribe stiff penalties against anyone caught illegally disturbing historic and archeological sites.

McNeil said the site could provide valuable insights into the history of Memphis, including its commerce, food supply and medical services.

"That's why dumps are important," he said.

Next: Lode of past beckons under cobblestones

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