Visitors Guide to
West Memphis
Crittenden County, Arkansas
 
"Stop In. Stay Awhile."

West Memphis is the largest town in Crittenden County. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River where I-55 and I-40 meet and across the river from Memphis, Tennessee, West Memphis has been referred to as the crossroads of the United States and is one of the largest trucking centers in the nation.

There is evidence that humans have lived in the West Memphis area for at least 10,000 years. Natives Americans of the Mississippian Period were the last pre-European inhabitants of the West Memphis area. The original inhabitants, like later settlers, were drawn to this region because of its fertile river bottom soil, abundant game, and thick forest. In the summer of 1541, Spanish Explorer Hernando De Soto entered what is now Crittenden County with an army of over 300 conquistadors. The Spanish found the land to be the most densely populated that they had seen since starting their journey on the Florida coast, two years earlier. By the time that the Spanish expedition left Arkansas two years they left behind numerous old world diseases. When the French expedition of Joliet and Marquette arrived in 1673 they found none of the towns or people that the Spanish had documented. All that remained were the many mounds that still dot the landscape along the rivers and creeks. Mound City Road, located in the eastern West Memphis has a marker indicating that the villages of Aquixo (Aquijo) or Pacaha were in the area and several mounds in the area are still visible.

Benjamin Fooy (or Foy) was one of the earliest recorded white settlers in the area near present-day West Memphis, Fooy was a native of Holland and was sent by the Spanish governor of Louisiana to establish a settlement on the Mississippi River. Fooy settled in the area in 1795 and in 1797 a hamlet, designated “Fooy’s Point,” took the name Camp de la Esperanza (translated as Field of Hope.) After the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the settlement’s became known as “Hopefield.” Benjamin Fooy was named as the region’s United States Magistrate. Fooy, noted for his honest character and extensive knowledge of the country, ran a clean and lawful town with a bright future until his death in 1823. However, after Fooy’s death, Hopefield became a haven for gamblers and thieves banned from the larger city of Memphis, located across the river.

In 1855, in spite of its rough reputation, Hopefield was chosen as the eastern terminus of the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad. In 1858, Irish immigrants helped provide labor that connected the first railroad in Arkansas from Memphis, Tennessee. In 1861, with the beginning of the Civil War, construction of the railroad was halted just east of the St. Francis River. The shops at Hopefield were turned into an armory for the Confederacy and farming in the area declined as able-bodied men began enlisting. After Memphis fell to Union forces on June 6, 1862 most of the Confederate soldiers escaped across the river into Arkansas. While most of these men were sent to other fronts, a number remained to harass Union forces and disrupt river traffic. This became such a problem that on February 19, 1863, four companies of Federal forces crossed the river burned down Hopefield. The town was rebuilt after the war but never regained the prominence it once held in Crittenden County.

After the Civil War the citizens of Crittenden County realized the need for a new center for government and business. In 1884 the town of West Memphis was platted by Robert Vance, Jr. and his brother William. Within a year the town had grown to over two hundred residents. When the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis RR completed the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River at Memphis in 1892, the focus gradually shifted from river transportation to rail transportation. Due to the change from river traffic to rail traffic and the introduction of lumbering in the area, the population of the county began to congregate in West Memphis area. The West Memphis area usually flooded in the spring until the St. Francis Levee District was established in 1893. However, as the levees were only three or four feet high, they broke during flooding in 1912, flooding the area from West Memphis all the way to Forrest City in inland St. Francis County. It was during this flood that Hopefield was washed away.

With the coming of the automobile age, the Harahan Bridge, the first automobile bridge across the Mississippi River at Memphis, was constructed in 1917. This heralded the growth of the small industrial town of West Memphis as its main street, Broadway Avenue, became a U.S. Highway and an influx of traffic began streaming through the town spurring development. Before the Harahan Bridge was built, most vehicles, except trains, had to ferry across the Mississippi River. Tolls were collected to help pay for the bridge until 1930.

West Memphis was officially incorporated in 1923. The availability of river and rail transportation transformed West Memphis into the manufacturing and distribution hub of the county. The city continued to prosper and grew to become the largest city in Crittenden County despite the devastating 1927 flood and the Great Depression. The travel corridor down Broadway thrived during the World War 2 years as transportation of soldiers and goods through the roads, river, and rail lines in the Memphis/West Memphis area created the need for lodging and human services. The construction of a second automobile bridge across the Mississippi River in 1949 created another influx of automobile traffic through West Memphis. When the national interstate system opened in the 1950s and diverted traffic from America’s main street, West Memphis’ Broadway Avenue was the city’s center of commerce with retail stores, tourist courts and hotels, and office buildings. Decline of Broadway Avenue was rapid after the introduction of the interstate highways. Only the three blocks of E. Broadway contained in the West Memphis Commercial Historic District remain much as they appeared in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.

One the town’s most notable export has been its original Blues music. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, 8th Street was often called “Beale Street West,” reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis. At one time Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Mr. Lockwood, and B. B. King all called West Memphis home. Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers, such as the Square Deal Café - referred to as Miss Annie’s Place on South 16th Street, where B. B. King began his public entertaining. Other popular night spots along Broadway Street were Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club, and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn.

West Memphis began its role as a trucking hub with the opening of parts of I-55 in the 1950s. With both I-55 and I-40 traveling toward the Mississippi River, West Memphis became known as the crossroads of America in the trucking industry. In 1973, a six-lane highway bridge, known as the Hernando de Soto Bridge and located north of the Harahan Bridge, opened as part of I-40.

The city of West Memphis hosts some major annual events including the Gumbo Fest in April, the Taste of the Town in August, Blues in the Park during the summer, the Main Street Fall Festival in September or October, and the Carriage Rides and Christmas Tree Lighting in November/December. In 1990, a non-profit organization called Main Street West Memphis began revitalizing fifteen blocks of Broadway Avenue, the major street of the city. In July 2008, the 700, 800, and 900 blocks of Broadway were designated as a Commercial Historical District on the National Register of Historic Places.







 
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