Breakdown: Why it’s called ‘Mud Island’

In this Breakdown, we take a look at the history of Mud Island, which started off as nothing more than a sandbar
Published: Dec. 12, 2021 at 10:31 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Located in downtown Memphis, Mud Island is bordered by the Mississippi River to the west and the Wolf River and Harbor Town to the east.

While not actually an island (it is a peninsula), it did rise out of mud.

Mud Island surfaced around 1899 or so, by most historical accounts. Several factors led to its formation.

1) The river’s ebb and flow shifted slightly, allowing sediments to build up.

  • Ebb and flow are two phases of the tide or any similar movement of water.
    • The ebb is the outgoing phase, when the tide drains away from the shore.
    • Flow is the incoming phase when water rises again.

2) Then in 1910, the U.S. Navy gunboat Amphitrite ran aground, thus helping what was already a buildup of silt. The ship was removed, or otherwise freed, in 1912.

By 1912-1913, the peninsula had permanently established itself. Mud Island River Park occupies 52 acres and is about three miles long and perhaps one third of a mile across in some places. Mud Island was initially was known as City Island, according to news reports from the 1950s.

A 1954 story in the old Memphis Press-Scimitar states “Mud Island” was the name used by “the Army Map Services, Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army War Department” in 1939 and revised in 1944.

“Mud Island” was also used by Mississippi River flood commission maps around the same time.

Former mayor and influential politician E. H. Crump often referred to it as both “Mud Peninsula” and an eyesore, and some accounts say he even tried having it dredged away.

Luckily this did not happen, and in 1958, construction for an airstrip known as the Memphis Downtown Airport began right across the river from downtown Memphis.

It featured a 3,100-feet paved runway and was said to be the first airport in the nation built so close to a downtown.

The airport was used by business travelers in the 1960s who appreciated its convenience to downtown Memphis, and it featured a pontoon ferryboat for the 300 feet trip to the mainland.

It even had a great slogan: “You’re strictly uptown when you land downtown.”

According to the book “The Aviation History of Tennessee” by Jim Fulbright, a bitter fight to save the airport began in 1965 when the Interstate 40 bridge across the Mississippi River was proposed.

The airport closed in 1970 when the bridge was built directly over the north end of the runway.

Mud Island’s history doesn’t end there... The Mud Island River Park opened July 4, 1982 for fun. The modern amphitheater was one of the highlights (but has gone unused since 2018).


The Riverwalk is one of Mud Island‘s highlights. Additionally, The Mississippi River Museum is part of the river walk. There are 18 galleries about the history of the River Mississippi, its people, its engineering and its myths. You will see a life-sized riverboat replica and will hear the stories of adventurers living on this waterway.

Five galleries are dedicated to the history of the Civil War, even a gunboat is available. It is open from May to October. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday.

  • NOTE: The Mississippi River Museum is currently closed at the time of this writing and will re-open in 2022.

Mud Island River Park has a vital and dynamic role to play in the life of the City of Memphis today. It is a 52 acre outdoor park and major tourist attraction. The park is home to the 18-gallery Mississippi River Museum; the 5-block long scale model, the Riverwalk; the Adventure Center and a 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater. The park serves as a site for staging outdoor community festivals and special events each season, and is an important catalyst for the continuing revitalization of downtown Memphis. Today, the park is owned by the City of Memphis and managed by the Riverfront Development Corporation.

To learn more about Mud Island and events, click here.

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