By Tom Charlier
A major stream that was once a defining feature of Memphis percolates largely unseen through a honeycomb of culverts, bridges and tunnels deep beneath downtown.
But now, thanks to a recent surge in downtown development, Bayou Gayoso is forgotten no more.
"All the sudden, it's a popular topic," said Cindy Buchanan, deputy public works director for the city.
City engineers and private developers have been rediscovering the bayou as they prepare for projects ranging from the $11.5 million Gibson Guitar Corp. plant to the $46 million downtown baseball stadium. In certain areas, culverts and bridges over the stream must be fixed or replaced.
Currently, crews are wrapping up work on replacing a bridge beneath Poplar, just west of Thomas, that few motorists passing over it probably even knew existed.
Originally constructed over the bayou around the time of World War I, the concrete span was rebuilt several times, including work to accommodate streetcars, and eventually covered over in pavement. But recent inspections showed cracks in the beams of the span that could have threatened the roadway above.
Under a $190,000 project nearing completion, the city is replacing the bridge with a 10-by-10-foot culvert. "The Poplar bridge was one of the few left," said John E. Cameron, the city's civil design engineer.
The troubles with the span were uncovered in a comprehensive inspection - the first in perhaps two decades - conducted all along the bayou about a year ago. One of the factors prompting the inspection, in which engineers ventured into aging subterranean passageways, was the spate of projects planned in the downtown area.
"There was a lot of development that we could foresee impacting the bayou in on form or fashion," said Wain Gaskins, city administrator of transportation planning and design.
The projects include The Peabody Place retail center to be built between Second and Third, the Gibson Guitar plant south of Beale, AutoZone Park near Union and Fourth, and the downtown school planned near Madison and Thomas.
For The Peabody Place project, the city is negotiating with developer Belz Enterprises on ways to "build around the bayou," Cameron said.
At the Gibson site, part of the culvert containing the bayou had to be replaced before plant construction began.
The city, as a contribution to the ballpark project, replaced some 200 feet of culvert over the bayou south of Monroe. A nearby concrete arch bridge beneath Monroe, which was built over the stream a century ago, probably will need repairs or replacement, depending on development plans adjacent to the stadium, Cameron said.
The city also is looking at replacing part of the culvert that lies beneath what will be the playground for the planned school downtown, he said.
The new projects are focusing attention on a stream that long ago was a major feature of the local landscape.
Bayou Gayoso, named for a Spanish governor who landed in the area in the 1790s, formed the eastern boundary of Memphis when the city was laid out in 1819 and drained the area behind the bluffs lining the Mississippi River.
Originating near the present site of Walker Avenue, the bayou flowed north into the general area of where Thomas now runs before angling northwest into the old channel of the Wolf River near Greenlaw.
According to some early accounts, the bayou spread out into a large lake known as Catfish Bay, near the present Second Street, where travelers on the Mississippi found safe anchorage and good fishing.
As Memphis grew, property owners began digging out the channel and reinforcing the stream bank with brick and concrete.
"As development moved east, buildings were built on top of it, straddling it," Cameron said.
The bayou still presented a major flood threat, however, whenever the Mississippi rose and backed its waters into the channel. In 1912, for instance, floodwaters from the bayou backed up a half-mile into Memphis.
During the years that followed, engineers tinkered with drainage patterns and diverted two-thirds of the bayou's flow into huge circular tunnels leading to the Mississippi River. To prevent backwater flooding, the mouth of the bayou was sealed and a pumping station was built to lift water into the Wolf.
The tunnels, bored more than 50 feet beneath the bluffs, still carry stormwater into the river. The recent inspections showed the 80-year-old tunnels, called interceptors, were sound, Cameron said.
"For their age, they're in very good shape," he said.
Today, the diminished bayou can be seen at ground surface in only a few stretches, most prominently north of Auction near the pumping station.
Bayou Gayoso, also called Gayoso Creek, once formed the eastern boundary of Memphis as shown on this original plan for the city. Today, it mostly flows through underground culvert, bridges and pipes.
Copyright (c) 1998 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
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