February 16, 2017
Uniform communication about the changing stages of the Mississippi River can be difficult to achieve due to the varying channel widths and riverbed sea level. As the steamboat industry developed along the Mississippi River during the middle of the 19th century, communication about river conditions became imperative for safety and navigation. In 1872, the Department of the Navy instructed all ports to mark the low water mark of that year (relative to sea level) and label it “zero” on each local gauge. The low water mark in Memphis in 1872 was at 183.91 feet (sea level). The City chose to place the river gauge on the Cobblestone Landing in 1874 per the Navy’s order “to construct upon the slope of the paved Landing a water gauge so that the exact change of the River’s rise and fall can be read at any time.”
The water levels of the Mississippi River fluctuate dramatically at Memphis with an average annual fluctuation of about 35 feet. With this fluctuation, river mariners had to be concerned about enough water depth for the safe passage of their vessels during low water season. River mariners used the gauge reading, along with their knowledge of the river bottom, to determine approximate water depths in between points measured by gauges.
The original Memphis river gauge begins with a narrow cast iron ribbon set in concrete stretching along the Cobblestone Landing from Riverside Drive to the Wolf River Harbor. Due to the slope of the land, each foot change in river gauge is 80 inches apart. Official flood stage measurements were historically taken at Memphis as it is the first point below Cairo where the river is constrained. The gauge was retired in 1932, but is still read by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. According to this river gauge, the river has crested at or above the 41 foot mark here 13 times. The highest occurred on February 10, 1937 when it crested at 50.3 feet. The lowest water level recorded occurred on July 11, 1988 at a -10.0 feet.
The current “official” gauge for Memphis is an electronic gauge about a mile south of the Cobblestone Landing near the Big River Crossing. Before electronic technology was added to the pilot houses of vessels, mariners used their binoculars to read the river level on the metal “day board” on the bluff just located east of Beale Street Landing at Vance Park. It is maintained to this day. The board displays a number which represents the river stage accompanied by an F if the water level is falling and an R if the water is rising. You can keep up with the river level here.