What was once the home to Paleo Indians is today’s French Fort community. It is one of the most historic areas in Shelby County. Here, Hernando de Soto met Chief Chisca of the Chickasaw Indians in 1541. For many years it was believed to be the location where de Soto first gazed upon the Mississippi River. In 1682, Robert de La Salle claimed the area for the French. In the 1700’s it was the French Fort Assumption. During the Civil War, both the North and the South occupied the area as the southern boundary of Fort Pickering where it was strategically located high on the bluff with its battery of cannons overlooking the Mississippi River. The fort was under the command of Zachery Taylor (12th president of the United States). In 1809, he greeted Lewis and Clark as they came down the river at this location. In the mid 1800’s, Mark Twain wrote in his book Life on the Mississippi that the view from the French Fort area was the most “beautiful vista on the Mississippi”.
The original U.S. Marine Hospital buildings were built in the late 1800’s to treat soldiers as well as workers who were injured while working on the levees.
The Harrahan Bridge was built in 1917. At the time, it was the 3rd longest bridge in the world, and it allowed vehicles to cross the Mississippi in Memphis instead of driving all the way to St. Louis. It remained the only bridge across the Mississippi River at Memphis until 1949 when the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge was built.
Also, at the turn of the century French Fort was a popular area for French and Irish immigrants to reside. This was a vibrant and close knit community with such amenities as a grocery store, restaurant, and Catholic Church and school. Jackson Mounds Park (now Chickasaw Heritage Park) named after Andrew Jackson was dedicated in 1919. This was a bustling park containing a bowling alley, an archery range, and a three story pavilion with a bandstand, dance floor and theater, keeping visitors and residents of the neighborhood occupied until all hours of the night.
In the 1930’s the U.S. Marine Hospital was upgraded to the now existing red brick building. This 3-story Georgian style building was built with the finest quality materials and workmanship of its time. With a slate roof, copper cupola, limestone and brick detailing, it is one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the City of Memphis.
The Italian and Irish immigrants resided in the area, then called Fort Pickering, until the 1960’s development of the Riverview Urban Renewal Project. The French Fort neighborhood of approximately 145 homes was developed and targeted as the first new middle/upper income African American neighborhood in the City of Memphis. Many prominent and influential Memphians including business leaders, city employees, university professors, artists and others have resided there throughout the years and are proud to call French Fort their home today. Also during the 1960’s, Interstate-55 was constructed. This brought about the development of two hotels but was also responsible for the disconnection of the French Fort area from the downtown core. The hotels relied heavily on the then very active operations of Southland Greyhound Park located about 10 minutes away in West Memphis, Arkansas. Until Tunica County in Mississippi approved gambling in 1992, it was the only gambling venue besides Hot Springs, Arkansas in the Mid-South area. Attendance was regularly 20,000 plus annually and it employed an average of approximately 750 employees. After Tunica approved gambling, Southland Greyhound Park’s business and both hotels in French Fort declined. One hotel was vacated, and one survives operating as a low budget hotel today.
The National Ornamental Metal Museum, located on a portion of the original Marine Hospital compound, was established in the 1970’s by James Wallace and today is a world renowned museum, library, and educational facility for the metal arts community. It is a major destination for tourists today in spite of it being off the beaten path. The U.S. Marine Hospital closed in the 1980’s. Several years later it was re-opened by the National Guard as a command center and hospital for injured soldiers.
In recent history, Electrolux and Mitsubishi Manufacturing opened plants just a few miles south of French Fort. They are expected to produce a total of approximately 1,400 highly sought manufacturing jobs.
Southland Greyhound Park, under new management is making a comeback. It is now one of the area’s largest employers and plans to add 60 new hourly jobs, as well as management positions, to its current workforce of more than 675 in 2014.