By Herb Sparrow
Photo courtesy Alabama Tourism Department
In April, when the American Queen pulls away from its new dock at Beale Street Landing in Memphis, Tenn., for the first time, it will not only mark the return of overnight riverboat cruising on the Mississippi River and other Midwestern inland rivers, it will also be a big moment in the redevelopment of the Memphis riverfront.
“It [Beale Street Landing] is a new world-class riverboat landing,” said Jonathan Lyons, public relations manager for the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It will enhance that entire riverfront area.”
In Savannah, Ga., River Street along the Savannah River has long been a magnet for visitors.
“Most of the tourists have River Street as a stop on things to see and do in Savannah,” said Megan White, communications associate for the Savannah Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Several Southern cities have re-established ties with their riverfronts in efforts to spark economic development and tourism, and others, like Savannah, maintain a long riverfront heritage.
Here are a few Southern cities with riverfronts old and new that are worth visiting.
A nine-block row of former cotton warehouses along River Street has been converted into trendy boutiques, art galleries, shops, hotels, inns, restaurants and pubs.
Riverfront benches on the cobbled plaza are great spots for watching giant ocean-going freighters stacked high with multicolored cargo containers move up the river to Savannah’s busy commercial port and speculating about where they have been. Or you can watch them glide by while eating at the restaurants, many of which have outdoor cafes along River Street.
“All the buildings there are historic,” said White.
Cobblestones used as ballast in ships that came from England line streets leading to Factors’ Walk, a charming alley of shops and cafes on the upper level of the warehouses. Cotton brokers, or factors, once used the iron bridges that span Factors’ Walk to bid on the contents of wagons that passed below.
About a block and a half from River Street in a restored 19th-century Greek Revival house is the Ships of the Sea — Maritime Museum, which has an extensive collection of ship models, paintings and maritime artifacts dealing with the era of Atlantic trade and travel between England and America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
A popular stop at the end of the street near the river’s entrance to the harbor is the statue of the “Waving Girl,” Florence Martus, and her dog. Martus lived with her lighthouse keeper brother near there from 1887 to 1931, and during that time, she waved a welcome to each incoming ship and a goodbye to every outgoing vessel, an estimated total of more than 50,000 vessels.
The Savannah Riverboat Co. gives tours on the river on large paddleboats, and streetcars travel the length of the street on a regular basis.
When completed, Beale Street Landing at the foot of Memphis’ historic Beale Street will include a variety of park spaces, a restaurant and a gift shop in addition to the 400-foot-long floating riverboat dock.
“It will be an appropriate ending to Beale Street,” said Dorchelle Spence, director of communications for the Memphis Riverfront Development Corp. “The part that includes the dock and restaurant will be completed in the spring, the park area, the last phase, will be completed in the spring of 2013.
“This is the one place folks will have the opportunity to actually get down to the water’s edge, no matter what the water level.”
Lyons said the park’s grassy areas will be places where “people can sit, read or just hang out.”
Beale Street Landing connects the 33-acre Tom Lee Park with the historic cobblestone area along the river. “It adds a new link to that connection,” said Spence.
Tom Lee Park, which extends for about a mile and a half along the riverbank, has expansive space for recreational activities and is the site of two of Memphis’ major festivals: the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and the Beale Street Music Festival.
A short distance from the cobblestone area, which will eventually be renovated, is Mud Island State Park.
“Mud Island is definitely a big riverfront amenity,” said Lyons. “It has an amphitheater, a river walk and a replica of the entire river, and the museum is really cool.”
The Mississippi River Museum’s 18 galleries cover all aspects of river life and history, including the Civil War, delta music, river engineering and more.
The five-block-long replica represents the Mississippi River from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans, where it dumps into a 1.3 million-gallon Gulf of Mexico.
Another good way to experience the river at Memphis is by cruising with Memphis River Boats, which offers a variety of sightseeing and dinner cruises on its three boats, along with dinner and dancing on its docked Memphis Showboat.
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