Transportation and Memphis



by Devin Greaney From MEMPHIS DOWNTOWNER, August, 2007.

Those of us working at the FedEx hub the week before Christmas 1989 remember it being especially brutal. An intense cold front hit the morning of December 15, and for all but one hour, the temperature stayed below freezing until Christmas Day. With temperatures dropping to minus 4 and high winds, wind chills were in the negative 30s. Nature added ice on the streets and tarmac to the equation.

The merger the previous August with Tiger International meant more freight than planes to carry it. Night employees also worked in the day, and day employees also worked at night to manage the record volume. On Friday night, a computer malfunction kept most packages from being sorted, meaning the peak season of ’89 would last yet another day.


Saturday afternoon, hundreds of employees — most of us unscheduled — helped sort the hundreds of thousands of packages so they could get under trees and into stockings by Christmas Eve. It seemed everything that would fly or drive — from vans to jumbo jets — found its way into Memphis, was loaded, then headed off for a rare Sunday delivery day.

But there was little whining as we loaded flight 652, the Boeing 727 to Salt Lake City and Boise. The prevailing attitude was, “Santa is depending on us!”

What we were not thinking about was that we were part of a tradition in the city dating back to when Memphians were the ones the nation relied on to get whatever was needed from here to there.

Memphis, like most early cities, was founded on a river. Canoes were the first form of transportation, but as Memphis became Memphis, flatboats headed down river from ports north. Shipping became more sophisticated as the city grew, and in no time, we became a major port city where cotton was the largest source of activity down at the cobblestones.

An old path was used for foot and horse traffic, and when rail came to Memphis in 1852, part of the path was used for rail as well. It seemed to make sense at the time, but today’s Memphians curse the decision as they sit in traffic on that old path — now known as Poplar Avenue — waiting for the train to finish crossing Perkins.

By the Civil War, transportation and Memphis were defiantly linked. The city now had rails heading east, northeast, south, and west. The Union Navy clashed with the Confederate Navy, sending all but one of the South’s defending fleet to the bottom of the Mississippi and Memphis into Federal hands. Forts sprang up along the Memphis Charleston (now Southern) Railroad to protect this vital resource, according to West Tennessee Historical Society Papers (1987).

The war ended, but not Memphis’s place as a transportation center. Cotton harvests every year came in and out of Memphis — still today the largest spot cotton market in the world — as did horses, mules, and passengers. The Lee Line of riverboats was based out of Memphis, and the Lee home is still there in Victorian Village with a tall tower so Captain James Lee could see the river and catch a glimpse of his fleet.

Rail was becoming as much a part of Memphis as riverboats. Rails from the Mississippi Delta brought in timber from the rich forests, making Memphis the hardwood capital of America.

At the Poplar Street Station in 1900, conductor Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones left on his fateful journey to become a legend of story and song, sacrificing his life to save his passengers. In 1912 and 1914, Union Station and Central Station were built about a block away from each other, creating the first boon in the South Main historic district.

Perhaps the first distribution center in Memphis opened with great fanfare in August 1927. Sears began much like today’s amazon.com — mostly mail order with very few retail outlets. But Memphis received one of only nine Sears distribution centers in the country — as well as 1,000 jobs. And when Sears president Gen. R. E. Wood talked about Memphis’s “distributing center” in a 1930 newspaper article, was he foretelling the city’s future as America’s Distribution Center?

World War II brought us the Memphis Defense Depot on Airways, a center for military supplies. Millington was also to change Memphis in those years. Park Field was an army flight training center in World War I when the military was just discovering aviation. By World War II, Park Field had been transferred to the Navy and was on its way to becoming the largest inland naval base in the world.

But it was a Marine who made Memphis a true transportation center — first of the U.S., then of the world.

Frederick Wallace Smith’s idea for an overnight package distribution service came from his days as an undergraduate at Yale. Today, it is a $35 billion global transportation, business services, and logistics company that handles more than 6.5 million shipments each business day and is directly responsible for the growth — even the existence — of many industries in Memphis.

Sears, the U.S. Military, and FedEx realized an important attribute Memphis has beyond rail, river, and road: geography. Memphis is within a day’s drive of Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, and Dallas. We are far enough south to — for the most part — keep our transportation underpinnings out of winter’s way.

In December 1981, the city began advertising itself with a new catch phrase: Memphis: America’s Distribution Center. The hope was that every time a CEO spoke the words “new distribution center,” Memphis would immediately come to mind. Now, medical supplies, shoes, cell phones, chemicals, agricultural products, and more move through the city.

And passengers, too, are important shipments in and out of Memphis. In 1949, Atlanta-based Southern Airways made its first-ever flight — destination Memphis. Southern merged and became Republic Airways in 1979, and Republic began adding flights out of Memphis.

In April 1983 we became a hub city with 82 departures per day. Republic was bought by Northwest, and now 223 flights per day are typical out of Memphis International. A two-mile-long runway means a jumbo jet can fill up, have enough distance to take off, and literally make it to China without having to stop on the way.


Today, Memphis is home to the largest cargo airport in the world. We have the third largest rail center in the nation, thanks to a recent expansion by CN railroad. Our river makes us the fourth largest inland port, something that may be forgotten in the days of air and interstates. Indeed, history shows that when it comes to Memphis and transportation, we give it wings.

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