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VOL. 127 | NO. 199 | Thursday, October 11, 2012

River Walk Rehab

A look back at 30 years of the Mississippi River replica on Mud Island

By Bill Dries

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What is 2,000 feet long, 30 years old, has 20 cities and can carry a leaf from Cairo, Ill., to the Gulf of Mexico in 40 minutes?

The Mud Island River Walk, a scale model of the Mississippi River, has seen a lot of changes — and footsteps — since it opened as the dominant feature of the river park 20 years ago. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The Mud Island River Walk, a scale model of the Mississippi River, has seen a lot of changes since it opened as the dominant feature of the river park in 1982.

When it was being planned and designed by Nesbit Coltharp in the early 1980s, the park was still being called Volunteer Park on Mud Island.

Some of Coltharp’s sketches, schematics and other plans are on display through the end of this month in the River Gallery of the Mississippi River Museum in the park.

Jimmy Ogle of the Riverfront Development Corp., which oversees the park, put together the exhibit after meeting members of Coltharp’s family. Coltharp worked for Roy P. Harrover & Associates of Memphis, the firm that designed and planned the entire park including the River Walk. Coltharp died in 1998.

“It’s the only model I know of like that open to the public,” Ogle said. “It’s a very rare architectural feature.”

Ogle found the 1980 plans for the River Walk in city archives and combined them with items from the Coltharp family that included his tools and photo snapshots he took of the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss. The facility used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the only river replica similar to the Mud Island River Walk.

Thirty years later, the 1,746 concrete panels that make up the River Walk – each weighing one ton – have settled a bit in the island’s sand base.

“Leaves do collect in there. You’ve got to sweep leaves out. Sometimes you get algae in there during the heat of the summer,” Ogle said. “There has been a little bit of settlement. If you’ve walked on the River Walk you notice after 30 years that that’s a facility built on sand.”

The maintenance includes some re-caulking of the joints of the panels as well as work on the pumps that recycle the water and carry it back to the northern end of the River Walk from the Gulf of Mexico on the southern end of the park.

The Gulf has changed more than any other part of the River Walk in its uses. When the park opened in July 1982, the clear waters of the Gulf were for paddleboats. By the end of the 1980s, the city of Memphis had turned the park over to promoter Sidney Shlenker for attractions to go with The Pyramid that was then being built.

Ogle, who has worked as Memphis Park Commission director and Mud Island general manager, recalled the July 1, 1989, debut of Shlenker’s one idea that did make it off the drawing board – Bud Boogie Beach, a sand beach with volleyball nets around the gulf with the gulf as a swimming pool. The beach, which was linked to the concession stand near the gulf, bore the Budweiser brand in its name.

The gulf’s incarnation as a swimming pool made it the largest public swimming pool in the state of Tennessee. It was also a challenge to keep the water chlorinated properly. Bud Boogie Beach lasted approximately six years, which was longer than Shlenker’s stay in Memphis.

“RDC has the paddleboats in there again,” Ogle said. “Every once in a while we fill that gulf up with catfish and have catfish tournaments for the kids.”

Last year the real Mississippi River reached its highest level at Memphis since the record 1937 flooding, adding too much realism to the River Walk when its muddy waters overtook the south end of the island and spilled into the replica Gulf of Mexico.

While the River Walk includes flood plains that could accommodate higher levels of water, Ogle said the model doesn’t include varying the height of the water to mimic the river’s sharp highs and lows in a normal year’s time.

“We haven’t tried to match the current level. Right now there wouldn’t be any water in it,” he added. “It’s just better to keep about a medium level of water in there just for circulation and cleaning and people’s ability to walk in it and kick the water and all of that. We don’t try to emulate the up-and-down kind of water change.”

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