Good times in West Memphis

SEVENTH IN A SERIES

The good news keeps coming for West Memphis.

In November, Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment that will allow four full-fledged casinos across the state. One of those casinos will be at Southland Park Gaming & Racing in West Memphis.

Officials at Delaware North, Southland’s nationally known and well-financed parent company, say they will build a $200 million hotel and convention center. A Delaware North official has called it “a priority of the company to get it up and going.”

West Memphis once had the reputation of being the place where residents of Memphis and the Delta came to play. At a time when the Bluff City had a curfew, dozens of bars, juke joints and technically illegal but wide-open gambling establishments flourished 24 hours a day on the Arkansas side of the river.

Greyhound racing began in Crittenden County in 1935. Southland Park has been at the same location since 1956. The dogs first raced at the Riverside Kennel Club, which was at the Arkansas end of the bridge crossing the Mississippi River. When Southland was established in the 1950s, it was the only legal gambling venue in the Mid-South. It drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri and even western Kentucky and southern Illinois. Delaware North bought the track in the 1970s.

“At its high point, Southland was said to be the top dog track in the country,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance. Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southland. All that changed in 1992.”

That’s when casino gambling came to nearby Tunica County in Mississippi.

“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500,” Hendricks writes. “Its annual revenues dropped from $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”

Southland was on the verge of closing when the Arkansas Legislature voted in 2005 to allow what it called “games of skill” at Southland and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs. Thanks to those electronic games, a $40 million facility was being built at the dog track by late 2006. It included a 55,000-square-foot gaming room, a 400-seat event center and additional restaurants.

The next big thing to happen at Southland was the Mississippi River flood of 2011. It caused the Tunica casinos to close for weeks. Memphis residents began crossing the bridge to Southland instead, and business has been booming ever since.

Additional renovations followed. Delaware North has now invested more than $100 million since 2006. There are about 765 employees.

Southland soon will be able to add dealers, big-name entertainment, a sports book, a luxury hotel, additional restaurants and more to the mix. That should take the employment level past 1,000. Regardless of what one thinks about casino gambling, it seems destined to help the West Memphis economy.

The other good news at West Memphis concerns health care. Construction has been completed on Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden County. The $43 million facility has 115 employees.

West Memphis had been without a hospital since Crittenden Regional Hospital closed in August 2014. The new hospital will have 65,000 square feet of patient rooms, operating suites and more. Crittenden County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax in 2016 to pay for the facility. Baptist Memorial Health Care, which also operates a medical center at Jonesboro, has a 10-year lease with a 10-year renewal option.

West Memphis has long lived in the shadow of Memphis. The first river bridge for a railroad opened in May 1892. The Harahan Bridge, which still stands, opened in 1916 for rail traffic. Two narrow automobile lanes were added in 1917 and a toll was charged.

Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was on the banks of the river. The second West Memphis developed near the intersection of three railroad lines that served the timber industry.

“During the summer of 1862, Memphis fell into the hands of Union forces,” writes historian Rachel Patton. “Most Confederate soldiers were ferried across the river to Hopefield and surrounding farms. Many of these soldiers were moved to other locations, but some remained to harass the Union forces at Memphis and disrupt river traffic. This became such a problem that on Feb. 19, 1863, four companies of Union forces burned Hopefield to the ground. The town of Hopefield was rebuilt after the war but never regained the prominence it once held in Crittenden County.

“In 1871, the Memphis & Little Rock Railroad was completed, aiding Hopefield’s economic recovery. Hopefield was eventually destroyed by floodwaters in 1912 when the Mississippi River changed course. Today the supporting piers of the Interstate 40 bridge rest atop the old location of Hopefield.”

The Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad was completed in 1883 through northeast Arkansas to the Mississippi River south of Hopefield. The railroad built a depot, roundhouse and terminal yard at the ferry landing. A sidewheeler known as the Charles Merriam then transported railcars to the Tennessee side of the river.

“A settlement known as Garvey grew near the ferry landing,” Patton writes. “By 1885, the village had more than 200 residents as well as a grain elevator, hotel and two sawmills. Gen. George H. Nettleton, chief executive officer of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis Railroad, changed the name of the settlement to West Memphis in order to bring a higher price for lumber. … Floods and the construction of levees brought an end to the first West Memphis, which was built right on the river.”

Michigan native George Kendal and William Johnson of Memphis platted the second West Memphis in 1912. The area consisted at the time of thick canebrakes and swamps. One surveyor reported seeing a black bear at what’s now the corner of Eighth and Broadway.

Zack Bragg moved to West Memphis in 1904 and opened a large sawmill. In 1914, P.T. Bolz of St. Louis opened the Bolz Slack Barrel Cooperage Plant.

It was the importance of the automobile, however, that truly spurred growth in West Memphis.

“Before the Harahan Bridge was built, most vehicles had to ferry across the Mississippi River,” Charlotte Wicks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “The Harahan Bridge was damaged by fire in 1928, and it reopened after 18 months of repairs. In 1927, West Memphis was incorporated. The first mayor was Zach Bragg. … In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, Eighth Street was often called Beale Street West, reflecting a music and nightlife scene to equal that in Memphis.

“Some places in West Memphis have been associated with famous entertainers. The Square Deal Cafe, which was often referred to as Miss Annie’s on South 16th Street, was where B.B. King began his public entertaining. … Other popular nightspots along Broadway were the Willowdale Inn, the Cotton Club and the supper club known as the Plantation Inn.”

The population of West Memphis increased from 895 people in 1930 to more than 9,000 residents by 1950.

The 1938 Sanborn Fire Insurance map showed that West Memphis had four lumber companies, four cottonseed oil companies, three cotton gins, a cotton compress, a feed mill, a distillery and an ice plant.

Before the construction of Interstates 40 and 55, Broadway (which doubled as U.S. Highway 70) had an abundance of tourist courts, hotels and restaurants. Thanks to voters statewide, West Memphis again appears primed to be the place where the Mid-South comes to play.

Those driving down Broadway these days can see buildings built during the boom period from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Fred and Zell Jaynes built the 1,025-seat Joy Theater at the southeast corner of West Broadway and Rhodes where a Sonic now stands. In 1953, it was leased by Malco and renamed the Avon. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, theaters such as this one were hosting burlesque shows and prize fights that were banned in Memphis.

“The city’s rapid population increase in the 1930s created a demand for better municipal services and led to the construction of a city administration building that would house the city hall, fire station and jail,” Patton writes. “Prior to 1938, city council meetings were held in various local businesses, and fire protection was weak at best. In 1930, West Memphis still relied on Memphis for its fire protection, and by 1938 there was one fire truck in West Memphis with a part-time crew. City Hall was built during the Great Depression when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were distributing mass amounts of federal aid to put people to work on projects that would benefit the general public and stimulate the local economy. The June 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act established the Public Works Administration.

“The PWA initially approved a $16,500 loan and a $13,500 grant for the West Memphis City Hall project and later approved another $14,000 grant. A city ordinance was passed to issue bonds for the remaining construction costs. R.D. Eberdt was the architect and engineer for the project. Construction began on July 29, 1938, with a crew of 50 people. The building was completed on June 13, 1939, and officially opened on July 18, 1939. The jail for ready to be occupied in August.”

A new City Hall was built in 1975 at 205 S. Redding Street. The old building is now known as the O.I. Bollinger Building in honor of a 33-year city council member. It houses the municipal court.

“Highway 70 in West Memphis had started off in about 1917 as a two-lane dirt road,” Patton writes. “It was graveled in 1918-19 and paved in 1926. Because Highway 70 stretched from North Carolina to California, it was called the Broadway of America. U.S. Highway 61 (Missouri Street) was also cleared in 1917. It was graveled in 1921 and paved in 1922. Both roads have gradually gone from two- to four-lane roads. In 1936, West Memphis adopted the street names Broadway and Missouri.

“Missouri Street serves as the dividing line between West Broadway and East Broadway. West Broadway was sparsely developed before 1950. In fact, a man named James Thomas was living in a houseboat moored in a drainage ditch on the north side of Broadway just west of Missouri Street as late as 1919. Sanborn maps from 1949 only show West Broadway as far as Redding.”

The Wonder City Cafe opened on Broadway in 1937 and became a popular stop for those traveling along Highway 70. Bill Abernathy purchased the restaurant in 1960, and it later became the Wonder City Cafeteria. It was destroyed by fire in the early 1970s.

KWEM radio went on the air in West Memphis in 1947 with studios on Broadway.

“In 1948, Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as Howlin’ Wolf, moved to West Memphis and worked in a local factory,” Patton writes. “But he was really drawn by the city’s blues clubs. He played the clubs at night and had his own show on KWEM. His radio show caught the attention of record producer Sam Phillips in Memphis, and Howlin’ Wolf soon signed with Chess Records. He moved to Chicago in 1952 and went on to perform throughout the United States and Europe. He died in 1976. In 1980, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and then was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

“Local merchant and musician Danny Craft also had a connection to KWEM. His father, also named Danny Craft, had a radio show on KWEM with his band Delta Dan & The Swamp Riders. This was during the same time period that Howlin’ Wolf was there. The elder Danny Craft later played in a band called Danny Craft & The Craftsmen.”

When the Federal Compress & Warehouse Co. opened in 1923 on the south side of the 600 block of East Broadway, it was the largest compress in the state. The company even had its own water and electrical plants. There were major fires in 1939 and 1972. Most of the buildings were demolished in 1980.

Turn off Broadway onto South Eighth Street, and you enter a neighborhood that was known as Little Chicago (in addition to the aforementioned Beale Street West moniker) due to its numerous black-owned clubs, restaurants and hotels. The street was hopping from the late 1930s until the early 1960s.

“On weekends, it was so crowded that you couldn’t drive down the first few blocks of South Eighth,” Patton writes. “Cars also were parked along East Broadway for several blocks in either direction. There was a 9 p.m. curfew in Memphis during part of this time, so musicians would come to Arkansas to play late at night. The West Memphis police chief was paid to look the other way. There were often illegal activities going on in the beer joints like gambling and prostitution. The bagmen collected fees to pay off city officials. Some of the businesses on South Eighth Street were Andrew & Louise Bass’ Be-Bop Hall, Lois Knight’s Little Brown Jug, ‘Pimpy’ Jones’ Pool Hall, the Silver Moon Cafe, Samuel ‘Tub’ Irvin’s Brown Derby, Jack Butler’s Busy Bee, Bubba Wright’s Doll House, Miss Sweet’s Cafe, the Dinette Lounge, the Blue Goose and the Cozy Kitchen.”

The Harlem Theater in the 900 block of Broadway was built by Jack Rhodes for black patrons.

J.H. Horton of Memphis built the Hotel Crittenden for white patrons on what’s now Broadway in 1925. It was purchased by L.E. Turner in 1934 and called the Turner Hotel. Ben Wever demolished the hotel in 1941 to make room for Buck’s Cafe and Wever-Riehl Motor Co.

In 1935, J.H. ‘Spec’ Horton built the Plantation Inn supper club for wealthy white patrons who came from across the Delta. It offered gambling on the second floor. It was demolished in September 1965.

Elvis Presley ate his first breakfast at the Coffee Cup on East Broadway after joining the U.S. Army. The Coffee Cup was known throughout the region for its country ham, fried chicken and steaks. The building was demolished in 1965 to make way for a new restaurant.

One of the last ice plants still in operation in the state is along Broadway. It was built about 1930 and later sold to Arkansas Power & Light Co., which operated 17 ice plants across the state before getting out of the business in 1945. The plant was purchased from AP&L by Roy Morley and Vance Thompson, who renamed it Delta Ice Co.

The whites-only Crittenden Theater on the 100 block of North Missouri was built in 1938. Ushers wore tuxedos and people could win cash prizes at the weekly Bank Night. The building no longer stands.

“Construction on Interstate 40 and Interstate 55 began in 1950, and a small section from the Mississippi River levee to Missouri Street opened in June 1951,” Patton writes. “By December 1963, Interstate 55 was open all the way north to Blytheville. As motorists began using the new interstate highways, commercial and residential development shifted toward the interstates. Businesses along Broadway suffered as big-box retailers constructed stores several blocks to the north. But Broadway remains a major thoroughfare in West Memphis, and it has lots of potential.”

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