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River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music - Beale Street

From the upcoming book, July 2023 release: River Shows, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz and Country Music, by Matt Chaney, Four Walls Publishing.

Matt's books are on Amazon.

Beale Street in Memphis, center, begins at the river landing, moving uphill to downtown and forking left; past the First Baptist Church at right, painted white with steeple; and carrying through the old mansion district. Aerial photograph in 1950. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives

Around Christmas Day, 1811, the first steamboat on the Mississippi River came down to the “Third Chickasaw Bluff.” The limestone uplift was imposing along the Tennessee shoreline, named for the native Indian tribe, future site of Memphis. Atop the hills, Chickasaw lookouts had watched the steamer trail smoke for miles, coming round the bend from the northwest. The strange machine concerned the braves, who were resolute in response.

Steamer New Orleans swept in at Third Chickasaw Bluff traveling 9 to 10 mph, bellowing smoke and sparks, and canoes sprang from both sides of the river, loaded with warriors in body paint. Boatmen hurried about the boiler deck, tossing wood in fireboxes, arming themselves, readying battle positions.

Chickasaw Bluffs at the site of Memphis, in a lithograph of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center

Chickasaw war parties posed a nightmare for Easterners aboard the steamboat, who would not pause at the bluff. The New Orleans chugged ahead of the canoes and Chickasaw braves were content enough, chasing it off.

In 1819 white settlers laid out a town on north end of the bluff, named Memphis for Egypt’s ancient city of the Nile delta. Memphis trade opened to Indian tribes of western Tennessee, whose couriers followed narrow pathways through wilderness.

Cotton, steamboats and stagecoaches keyed 1830s development of the Memphis area. Business and residential districts expanded, town population increased, and Shelby County gained farms, villages and roads. In 1840 cotton buyers shipped 35,000 bales from Memphis, primarily to New Orleans for international markets. In 1844 Memphis shipped 100,000 bales, sending steamboats stuffed to the rails, piled deck upon deck with product.

Stately homes multiplied along a “muddy tree-bordered lane” to be known as Beal Street, where land magnate Robertson Topp constructed his mansion and grounds. Topp was an attorney and legislator who cleared acres of wood and tangle, utilizing a mass of slaves, reportedly owning hundreds for his various properties.

Planters, cotton buyers and slave traders erected more columned mansions along the road in South Memphis. The boggy thoroughfare, west to east, extended from its river landing uphill to a high plane, then over streams and knobs for a mile. The wagon path ended at Pigeon Roost Road, headed south to Mississippi.

Beale Street origin: The famed Memphis thoroughfare was named for William M. Beal, New Orleans cotton dealer, according to historical news and more evidence, electronically recovered. "Beal Street" is denoted on the 1845 map, above, filed with incorporation papers for South Memphis. Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library & Archives

The term Beal Street did not appear in any document—plat or map, business proposal or advertisement, news report or book—until 1845, apparently, when South Memphis leaders applied for incorporation with lawmakers in Nashville. No document dated earlier suggested otherwise, none located for this book. Newspaper evidence and maps from 1819 to 1846, electronically available, indicated the streets of South Memphis were not publicly named until Nashville hearings for incorporation.

A newspaper mentioned “Beal Street” in the initial week of 1846, discussing the river landing of South Memphis. That June, legislators ratified the township for incorporation, and the Memphis Enquirer began designating Beal Street in advertisements. The Memphis Eagle was first to mention “Beale Street,” spelled with an “e,” in 1849, for a gunfight between partner cabinetmakers. North Memphis and South Memphis merged the following year, with a combined population pushing 10,000.

Robertson Topp died in 1876, his fortune wiped out by the Civil War and business failures. He left no written record or direct quote regarding the origin of Beale Street, but family members said Old Topp named the thoroughfare for a military hero unknown to them. None was sure of the name’s proper spelling, whether Beal or Beale.

The Locke family of Memphis, relying on different sources, declared the namesake for Beale Street was an antebellum man of business and politics—William M. Beal.

Gardner B. Locke, an early mayor of Memphis, was county assessor and tax collector in 1845-46. Locke bought and sold South Memphis properties, becoming acquainted with W.M. Beal of New Orleans, himself a Shelby County landowner planning to relocate. Beal’s reputation preceded him at Memphis as a banker, investor and cotton broker known across the South, with heavy contacts in Washington.

For publicity and advertising of William M. Beal in historic newspapers, his career path included the following: the cotton trade at New Orleans and Nashville, in 1828; a lawsuit victory in western Tennessee, Obion County, north of Memphis, in 1831; brokerage trade in Nashville and Selma, 1837; brokerage trade in Louisville and Jackson, Miss., from 1838 to 1839; bond sales for the “Texian government,” with Beal’s speculating on U.S. annexation, and a Vicksburg bank’s related claim of “swindle” and $40,000 lost; slave trade in Kentucky, when Beal purchased a young “negro man named John” in Union County and resold him within 16 months, 1841 to 1843; a sugar plantation listed for sale by Beal, Gulf Coast, 1841; property purchases in Tallahatchie County, Miss., where Beal had a power partner in Senator Robert J. Walker of Natchez, 1841; and, in 1844, controversy of the Texas Annexation bill which, if passed, figured to reap riches for co-investors Beal and Walker, alleged the Vicksburg Whig. In 1845 the U.S. Senate confirmed Walker as Secretary of the Treasury, setting up Beal for a federal post, while Texas was granted statehood.

W.M. Beal died in 1850 at New Orleans, succumbing of sudden “paralysis.”
Gardner B. Locke died in 1860 at Memphis, apparently maintaining that Beal Street, or Beale, was named for his late associate William M. Beal. A son of Locke later declared as much, Charles G. Locke, longtime business manager and copywriter for the Memphis Public Ledger.

C.G. Locke identified William M. Beal as namesake of Beale Street. Locke stated the entrepreneur had intended to reside in South Memphis but “failed to carry out his plans.”

“The city government and the maps of the city generally spell Beal Street with the final ‘e,’ making it Beale,” C.G. Locke reported in 1892. “The street was named in honor of Wm. M. Beal, who was a prominent merchant of New Orleans at the time South Memphis was laid off into streets. His name was Beal and not Beale.”

Beale Street music legends gather in 1952 for the homecoming of W.C. Handy, from New York. From left: Howard Yancey, bandleader and former Handy player, Gilbert Fowler, clarinet, Joe Walker, sax, Walter Smith, trumpet, W.C. Handy, Walter Tangsmith, trombone, Matthew Thorton, former Handy player, Lodus Ireland, guitar, George W. Lee, Beale historian, and Will Shade, jug bandleader. Memphis Press-Scimitar


72-Beale Street Music Legends1


72-Beale Street Music Legends2


72-Beale Street Origin


72-Chickasaw Bluffs