The seasons are just about to change at Mud Island River Park. Not the one in which the trees are turning to their fall colors, although that is also happening in the park.
The park on the southern end of Mud Island is open to visitors from April through Oct. 31.
A few weeks ago, we wrote about an exhibit in the park’s river museum on the origins of the park’s most distinctive feature – the scale model of the Mississippi River.
It is a fitting way to mark the end of the park’s 30th season. And Jimmy Ogle of the Riverfront Development Corporation, which runs the park for the city, tells us the exhibit on Nesbit Coltharp, the designer of the River Walk, will probably be back at some point next season.
Coltharp’s renderings and notes on features of the River Walk are precise which can prompt questions about why a lifelong Memphian looking at them feels so whimsical.
Maybe, that Memphian, whoever he is, is just whimsical. Or maybe it says something about Mud Island as a repository of sorts for civic dreams of years gone by.
Coltharp’s drawings and plans from early 1980 still bear the name “Volunteer Park” which was the early incarnation of a riverside park on the island. It grew from there to include a museum. Before you could say “monorail” there were other attractions including a River Walk.
But there were some ideas that didn’t make the cut. There was talk of relocating the rides at the Fairgrounds that became part of Libertyland including the Zippin Pippin roller coaster.
When the Fairgrounds area was cleared for Tiger Lane not too long ago, there was some renewed discussion of the carousel moving to Mud Island.
The name “Volunteer Park” wasn’t the last attempt to change the island’s name.
When the city turned over the park to Pyramid developer Sidney Shlenker in the early 1990s, it prompted a flood of ideas that would now be the bulk of a whimsy exhibit should the RDC choose to go that way.
Shlenker had plans for the park that were never realized including changing the name to Festival Island with multiple stages for musical acts. And an Egyptian-themed link from the Pyramid to an event area he called “Rakapolis.”
He held several days of auditions at Sam Phillips Recording studio for what seemed to be every musical act that had a gig at any time for any reason in any part of the city.
What we often forget about whimsy is that it isn’t necessarily effortless. I watched one night of the auditions which were an opportunity to get each of the acts on tape for judgment at a later date. It was an amazing array of talent. I still recall watching the guy at the sound board, whom I later learned was Stan Kesler, pull a sandwich out of his lunch bag as he continued to record about a dozen more acts.
For all of those plans, however, the park succeeds on a simpler level that perhaps isn’t as flashy. And because it is an island, it is easy for those of us who live here to forget that.
The desire to wade in the waters of the River Walk remains and the most common temporary feature along the River Walk during the summer months are shoes and socks in a wide range of sizes – some of them just small enough to require three or four steps to make it across the miniature city of Memphis, maybe more if the owner of the feet wants to wander into East Shelby County.
“When you leave at the end of the day you see abandoned socks. And people have these little makeshift boats they’ve made out of newspapers and cups,” Ogle said of a perennial maintenance item.
Coltharp’s plans from 1980 include the familiar aerial view of tree tops that took several years to develop. The River Walk of 30 years later by spring and summer is a lush environment of trees and shrubs and plantings maintained by the park’s staff. By fall it offers leaves of many colors for the river passage. Leaves have a gentler journey on clear waters most often noticed by younger eyes closer to the ground.
By winter, the bare branches cast long shadows on sunny days and a jagged frame for a gray river border on others.
But that’s the off season. And it is almost upon us.