History of West Memphis, Crittenden County
In the summer of 1541, Spanish Explorer Hernando De Soto crossed the Mississippi River into what is now Crittenden County with an army of over 300 conquistadors and almost as many captured Native-American slaves. 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. The Spanish expedition departed Arkansas two years later leaving behind numerous old world diseases. It was one hundred and thirty years before Europeans visited this region again. The French expedition of Joliet and Marquette in 1673 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. The original inhabitants, like the later settlers were drawn to this region because of its fertile river bottom soil, abundant game, and thick forest.
The earliest recorded immigrant to the area that is now West Memphis, Benjamin Foy, was a native of Holland who was sent in 1795 by the Spanish governor of the large area claimed by Spain to establish a settlement on the Mississippi River. He chose a location across the river from present day Memphis, Tennessee. In 1797 the hamlet, designated Foy’s Point, took the name Camp de la Esperanza or as translated, Field of Hope. The name remained but took on an English name, “Hopefield,” when it became part of the United States with the completion the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Benjamin Foy was named to the new position of United States Magistrate of the region. Foy, noted for his honest character and extensive knowledge of the country, ran a clean and lawful town with a bright future until his death 1823.
Crittenden County is bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and was established in 1825, eleven years before Arkansas became a state. Named after Robert Crittenden, the first secretary of Arkansas Territory, the county had a population of 1,272 in 1830. Hopefield became the eastern terminal for the Memphis and Little Rock Railroad in 1857. However the Civil War forced a halt to track construction just east of the St. Francis River in 1861.
During the summer of 1862 Memphis fell into the hands of the Union forces. Most Confederate soldiers were ferried across the river to Hopefield, Arkansas, and surrounding farms. Many of these soldiers were moved on to other battle fronts, but some remained to harass the Union forces and disrupt river traffic. This became such a problem that on February 19, 1863, four companies of Federal forces burned down the entire town. The town of Hopefield was rebuilt after the war but never regained the prominence it once held in Crittenden County. Hopefield was eventually destroyed by flood in 1912 through a change in the course of the Mississippi River.
Crittenden County needed a new center for government and business after the Civil War. In 1884 the town of West Memphis was platted by second-generation Crittenden County residents, two sons of Robert Vance. Robert Vance, Jr., with his brother William Vance were among the first settlers of the region in the 1830s. Within a year the town had grown to over two hundred residents. Robert Vance was appointed postmaster of West Memphis in 1885. By 1888 West Memphis had three businesses owned by the Winchester brothers, the Richard brothers and C.B. Givin.
Because of the vast resources of massive old growth forests surrounding the young town of West Memphis, the lumber industry became the fuel for its progress into the twentieth century. In 1904, Zack Bragg moved to West Memphis and opened Bragg Mill. With the construction a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River in 1892, the rail line that had once passed through Hopefield moved to Hulbert, a small farm town owned by a Memphis attorney on the edge of West Memphis. Bragg was able to ship his milled lumber and logs by rail and by river. In 1914, P.T. Bolz of St. Louis opened the Bolz Slack Barrel Cooperage plant.
With the coming of the automobile age, 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.
West Memphis was officially incorporated in 1923 and continued to grow to become the largest city in Crittenden County. The availability of river and rail transportation transformed West Memphis into the manufacturing and distribution hub of the county. Although in the 1930s West Memphis, along with the rest of the Mississippi Delta had fallen on hard times due to the national economic depression and the devastating 1927 flood in the Mississippi River Valley, the city grew and developed at a record pace. However, the most notable export of West Memphis from that era became its original Blues music. At one time Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Mr. Lockwood, and B.B. King all called West Memphis home.
Ever increasing automobile traffic and demand for the industrial products produced and shipped through the West Memphis rail and river traffic even during the hard times of the 1930s and war years of the 1940s instigated the growth and development of the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, Broadway Avenue. Tourist courts, restaurants, hotels and other amenities geared toward the traveler began to be constructed along the traffic corridor through West Memphis. During the World War II years, 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. Construction of a second automobile bridge across the Mississippi River connecting Memphis and West Memphis in 1949 created another influx of automobile traffic through West Memphis.
The buildings in the 700, 800, and 900 blocks of E. Broadway reflect the growth of the city of West Memphis in the years 1930 to 1958. Until the national interstate system was opened in the 1950s, diverting traffic away from former routes through the middle of America’s towns, 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 traffic through the town diminished with the opening of the interstate highways. Although the three blocks of E. Broadway contained in the West Memphis Commercial Historic District remain much as they appeared in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the remainder of the city’s major traffic corridor, Broadway Avenue, has experienced much change.
Because West Memphis and the surrounding areas in Crittenden County have been subject to some of the country’s most disastrous floods due the Mississippi River backing into the St. Francis River, the growth of the city was delayed. It was not until the importance of the automobile and its rapid rise as the major mode of transportation, did the growth of West Memphis begin in earnest. The city’s major corridor, Broadway Avenue, also U.S. Highway 70, brought thousands of travelers through the city and created the demand for the businesses that were opened in the 1930s and 1940s along the highly traveled route.
Buckalew, Terry. “Steady Rolling Man- Arkansas Bluesman Robert “Junior” Lockwood”. Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume LIII, No.1, Spring 1994.
City Directories of West Memphis, Arkansas, 1930-1960.
“Crittenden County History and Information”. http://www.myarkansasgenealogy.com/ar_county/ctn.htm
Demuth, David O. “The Burning of Hopefield” Arkansas Historic Quarterly, Volume XXXVI, No.2, Spring 1977.
“History of West Memphis”. http://www.wmcoc.com/westmemphis_information/history_of_westmemphis
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for West Memphis, Arkansas: 1930, 1938, 1949.
Mills, Kara. Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, National Register of Historic Places nomination, Little Rock, AR: Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.
The WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas. With an Introduction by Elliott West. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1987. Reprint of: Arkansas: A Guide to the State, 1941.