Historic Highway - US 72, the Bee-line to Memphis

  • Sunday, June 27, 2010
  • Harmon JOlley
US 72 ends on South Broad Street in downtown Chattanooga.  Click to enlarge.
US 72 ends on South Broad Street in downtown Chattanooga. Click to enlarge.
photo by Harmon Jolley

The Chattanoogans whom I know often talk of trips to Knoxville or to Nashville, but never mention driving to Memphis. Tennessee is a long state from east to west, and it’s difficult for the folks at each end to feel connected to one another.

Former local tourism official Bob Elmore recalled that there was talk in the 1960’s of a due east/west Interstate between Chattanooga and Memphis, but no funding was committed. The state highway department had enough of a challenge with I-24 through Missionary Ridge, he noted.

For those who do travel west, the popular route is I-24 to Nashville, a short trip on the I-440 bypass, then I-40 to the Bluff City.

There are two older highways: US 64, which passes through the southernmost counties between Chattanooga and Memphis, and US 72, which follows the Tennessee River valley through northern Alabama and Mississippi.

US 72 – THE BEE-LINE TO MEMPHIS

When I was growing up, there was a billboard on South Broad Street proclaiming U.S. Highway 72 as the “Bee-line to Memphis. The sign was black with white letters, and showed a bumblebee. I believe that the bumblebee billboard was still there in the late 1970’s.

I recently traveled US 72 to Memphis, many years having gone by since the last trip. The journey was much improved, thanks to road improvements within the last twenty years. I found the trip to be much more relaxing than driving the busy I-24/I-40 route west.

The following is my trip log, with some bits of history noted along the way.

SOUTH CHATTANOOGA AND TENNESSEE RIVER GORGE

US 72 begins or ends in the east, depending on the direction of your travel, at Broad and Seventeenth streets according to a sign. Some sources indicate Main Street as being the farthest milepost.

All along the route to Memphis, there are numerous Native American and Civil War sites of interest.

Heading towards Lookout Mountain, one is motoring along the Luther Massingill Parkway section of US 72. This was named to honor Luther for his many years of service to the community through his morning radio program on WDEF.

Between Chattanooga and Jasper, US 72 is called the Will Cummings Highway, in honor of the former Hamilton County judge and promoter of highway improvements.

US 72 threads its way through the Tennessee River Gorge, with its beautiful scenery in every season. There are remnants of the Hales Bar Dam, a pre-TVA endeavor which generated hydroelectric power supplied to a multi-story substation building still standing across from Finley Stadium.

The river gorge section was also once the address of tourist stops such as Pete’s Cider (“You have done missed Pete’s” chided the sign), The Jungle (roadside animal park), Hi-Way Falls, and the Mullins Cove Restaurant. All of those attractions date to the time before the construction of I-24.

JASPER

US 72 crosses the Tennessee River on the Marion Memorial Bridge, a former toll bridge which was raised during the construction of Nickajack Lake in the mid-1960’s.

After descending into the Sequatchie Valley, US 72 passes by the site of a former Horne’s Restaurant, part of a chain that competed with Stuckey’s.

At Jasper is one of America’s many town squares built around the courthouse. The Fox Theater once screened picture shows before being converted to other uses.


SOUTH PITTSBURG

South Pittsburg is well-known for its high school football, and for its manufacturing history. The National Cornbread Festival is held in April, and celebrates the cooking made possible through skillets from the Lodge Manufacturing Company.

US 72 once passed directly through this city, but a bypass was built several years ago.


BRIDGEPORT

Bridgeport is named for the railroad bridge built in the 1850’s. Its strategic location made it a Civil War battleground on August 26, 1862.

The route of US 72 was modernized considerably within the past twenty years. Along the old route was a drive-in movie theater.


RUSSELL CAVE

The Russell Cave National Monument is an easy drive from US 72. This is an extensive cave system, whose large opening provided shelter to Indians beginning in the Archaic Period. The park sometimes hosts demonstrations of Indian civilization, including the throwing of spears by means of the atlatl.


STEVENSON

Much of US 72’s route follows the path of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, which first entered Chattanooga in 1857.

The Stevenson Depot Railroad Museum is located in a depot built in 1872. The building is the site of a former depot constructed in 1852 to serve both the Nashville and Chattanooga and Memphis and Charleston railroads.

With Stevenson being at the intersection of two major rail lines, it was valued by both sides during the Civil War.

HOLLYWOOD

No, US 72 doesn’t go that far west. This is Hollywood, Alabama. Near this city is the TVA Bellefont Nuclear Generating Station, a project which has had starts and stops over its history.

TVA has a long history of involvement in flood control and power production along nearly the entire length of US 72.

SCOTTSBORO

One of the more unusual stores I’ve found in my travels is the Unclaimed Baggage Center. This business acquires items left behind by travelers on planes. After 90 days of searching for the owner by the airline, the articles are made available to this store.

HUNTSVILLE

Huntsville’s economy changed considerably beginning in the 1940’s, moving away from being a cotton port. Redstone Arsenal has been important to the Huntsville area and to the nation, providing support to military and space exploration needs.

A very popular attraction in Huntsville is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, which has many artifacts of the nation’s space program.

At Huntsville, one can find the Benton Wilcoxon Municipal Ice Skating Complex, which features the unusual design of dual rinks. Ice hockey is very popular in Huntsville, which is the home of the minor league Huntsville Havoc team.


DECATUR

On the east side of Huntsville, the highway divides into US 72 and I-565/US72 Alternate. If Memphis is your destination, I recommend the latter as a faster route.

On the banks of Wheeler Lake is the city of Decatur, one of several places named for War of 1812 hero Stephen Decatur.

At Decatur is Point Mallard Park, which includes the country’s first wave pool and other aquatic attractions. A year-round ice rink is also located inside the park.


TENESSEE-TOMBIGBEE WATERWAY

US 72 crosses the Tombigbee Waterway, completed in 1985 after twelve years of construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The canal connects the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers.

IUKA

As US 72 enters Mississippi, one passes through the city of Iuka. You’re in Tishomingo County, which was referenced in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

Like Chattanooga, Iuka is one of those names of cities that one may enjoy pronouncing a few times in succession. Iuka was named for a Chickasaw chief, and the town is situated on a former village.

Iuka was a battle site during the Civil War action in the West. The Battle of Iuka was fought on September 19, 1862.

Visible to the south of Iuka from US 72 is Woodall Mountain, the highest point in Mississippi.


CORINTH

Corinth was once the intersection of the Memphis and Charleston and Mobile & Ohio rail lines.

At Corinth, one can still find a Backyard Burgers restaurant. This chain was once represented by three eateries in the Chattanooga area, which have since closed.


COLLIERVILLE

Only a few miles of US 72 are still two-lane, with that portion being in Mississippi near the Tennessee border.

US 72 re-enters Tennessee east of Collierville. US 72 is unique in that it begins and ends in the same state, but with passage through two other states.

When I lived in Memphis in the early 1980’s, Collierville was considered “out in the country.” In fact, one of the city’s only automobile dealers invited customers to come see them, for things are always cheaper out in the country.

Today, however, Collierville has become more urbanized. Tennessee state route 385 connects US 72 to I-240, the beltway around Memphis.

GERMANTOWN

US 72 continues through the Memphis suburb of Germantown. Here, US 72 picks up the name of Poplar Avenue, a major east-west route into Memphis.

MEMPHIS

About three hundred thirty-seven miles from Chattanooga, US 72 finally ends at Bellevue Boulevard (US 51) and Union Avenue. One has reached the Bluff City, named for the bluffs along the mighty Mississippi which gave Memphis its position of prominence.

The National Civil Rights Museum is based at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Like Chattanooga, Memphis has transformed its downtown and riverfront into a more tourism-oriented economy.

The FedEx Forum, sponsored by Memphis-based FedEx, is a downtown arena that hosts NBA Memphis Grizzlies and University of Memphis Tigers basketball games.

Fans of Elvis Presley will, thank you very much, find plenty to see at Graceland and at Sun Recording Studios.

The Memphis Zoo is a popular destination inside the huge Overton Park in midtown Memphis. Nearby is the Pink Palace, a history and science museum centered on the former mansion of Clarence Saunders, who developed America’s first self-serve grocery, the Piggly Wiggly chain.

Whether your vacation plans include a stay-cation, a day’s drive, or a trip to Memphis or other city, I wish you happy and safe travel.

If you have memories of US 72, particularly the Bee-line to Memphis billboard, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net. I would love to find a photograph of that old US 72 billboard.

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