As soon as the first proposal to build a transcontinental railroad reached Congress in 1845, Memphis area leaders launched a campaign to become the Mississippi terminus. Their city was neither as old nor as powerful as New Orleans or St. Louis, but Memphis backers hoped that their central location would make them the compromise route. The State of Arkansas supported the plan, as did powerful political figures like John C. Calhoun, John Bell, Sam Houston, and Thomas Jefferson Rusk from Texas. But sectional bickering over slavery and states’ rights quickly undermined their plans. By 1854 supporters of the Memphis terminus had no hope of seeing their expectations fulfilled, despite the fact that the most practical all-weather route lay west of the city.
The proposed Memphis-Pacific Railroad also faced serious topographical as well as its political problems. Swampy, shifting soil covered the approaches to Memphis from east and west. Hundreds of miles of the proposed route lay in desolate land. The railroad’s political problems proved more crippling. Opposition to federal aid for internal improvements, intrasectional rivalries, and competition from New Orleans, Vicksburg, St. Louis, and Chicago, as well as promotions for a railroad or canal across Central America, further compromised the Tennessee plans. The sectional battle over slavery largely destroyed the consideration of the Memphis terminus.
At least until 1854, Memphis leaders valiantly tried to overcome these drawbacks through the staging of commercial conventions (1845, 1849, and 1853). They invited national leaders to attend in the vain hope of producing a compromise.
The Memphis-Pacific Railroad project attracted the attention of countless southerners and mesmerized Tennesseans. This failed dream exemplifies the economic consequences of the eroding national and intersectional unity on American progress.