Miniature Mississippi.

Mud Island

Field review by the editors.

Memphis, Tennessee

Give Memphis credit. The city opened Mud Island as an attraction in 1982, and has resisted the urge to change its name to something less muddy ever since. The attraction suggests that you arrive on its monorail -- a monorail -- and once you disembark you find yourself in a place that seems agreeably unaltered since its opening day.

Mud Island's main draw is Riverwalk, an outdoor, 2,000-foot-long scale model of the lower thousand miles of the Mississippi. Every sandbar, oxbow, and topographic contour is faithfully reproduced in cement. The river -- a little stream -- flows lazily south past minimalist cities and bridges rendered in steel.

Miniature Mississippi.

Signs repeatedly warn visitors to "walk or wade at your own risk," yet kids splash happily in their bathing suits. Adults can take off their shoes and slog their way along the entire mini-thousand miles like a striding Gulliver (each footstep equals roughly one mile).

The river twists, turns, and finally empties into a large "Gulf of Mexico," where exhausted Riverwalkers can rent pedal boats shaped like swans.

Offering relief from the Mud Island heat is the air-conditioned Mississippi River Museum. It trumpets its 18 galleries and 5,000 artifacts covering 10,000 years of history, but we were impressed by its unexpected population of wax dummies. Local celebrities such as Mark Twain and Mike Fink are faithfully reproduced, along with an assortment of gamblers, roustabouts, and other steamboat characters. Two desperate river folk -- white and black -- pile sandbags in one display, while another features the clown shoes and fake moustaches of riverboat entertainers from the 1920s.

Ironclad.
Ironclad shelling the hilltop is a large, dark diorama.

One entire dimly-lit room of the museum is filled with a walk-through imitation paddlewheeler, with bales of cotton on its deck and a wheelhouse where disembodied wacky character voices chatter from every direction.

Further on, in the museum's Civil War gallery, a similar display depicts a Union ironclad battling a Confederate hilltop artillery post -- again, dark, with voices, explosions, and a light show.

An unforgettable highlight of the museum is its Theatre of Disasters, where visitors can watch a 35-year-old video recounting the Mississippi's worst plagues, floods, tidal waves, and riverboat catastrophes. "Boiler explosions were frequent and terrifying," says the solemn narrator. Yellow fever was "the unstoppable killer that brought even greater dread and terror." Wailing women and clanging church bells provide accompaniment on the soundtrack.

Riverboat gamblers.
Riverboat gamblers in the gallery of wax characters.

The museum also has a gallery that traces the city's musical history from slave chants to Elvis, the latter represented by a headless dummy in a glass case wearing one of The King's signature stage suits.

The significance of the Memphis soul sound is chronicled in displays of photos, memorabilia, and a transplanted recording studio. But a display of cigar box fiddles and "musical bones" suggests that, unlike Elvis, the careers of most Memphis musicians didn't pay very well.

Elvis Presley display.

Walking the Mud Island Riverwalk is free; the swan boats, monorail, and museum cost extra. Budget-conscious travelers (or those freaked out by monorails) can simply drive onto Mud Island (which, despite its name, is not an island) from an entry road near the Great American Pyramid. But we recommend the monorail for the full 1982 experience.

Mud Island

Mud Island River Park

Address:
125 N. Front St., Memphis, TN
Directions:
Mud Island River Park. Downtown. Park ($6.00) at the Mud Island Garage, which os on the west side of N. Front St. at its intersection with Poplar Ave. Then ride the monorail to the Island.
Hours:
April-Oct. Tu-Su 10-5. Winter closed. (Call to verify)
Phone:
901-576-7241
Admission:
Riverwalk is free. Monorail $4.00. Monorail + museum $10.00
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Fire Museum Of MemphisFire Museum Of Memphis, Memphis, TN - < 1 mi.
Lopsided Pink DogLopsided Pink Dog, Memphis, TN - < 1 mi.
Pyramid of MemphisPyramid of Memphis, Memphis, TN - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Peabody Ducks, Memphis, TN - < 1 mi.

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November 20, 2017

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