The Heights

Asylums, trolleys & forgotten soldiers: Five facts about The Heights you didn't know

The Heights is roughly situated between Jackson and Summer avenues and Graham and Tillman streets. It is diverse in age, religion, race, ethnicity, and income. The majority of its homes are modest and its families working class. In the 1970s, the district’s councilman described it as a “salt of the earth” place. The same could still be said today.

The Heights was first settled in 1832 as a 900-acre cotton plantation owned by John Pope. In the early 20th century, it boomed with the rise of commerce on Summer Avenue. In the late 20th century it saw that investment fade.

Today there’s strong, grassroots momentum towards revitalization and a host of assets that make it a great place to live, work, and play.

High Ground’s On the Ground team is diving into The Heights for three months of embedded coverage. To kick us off, we’ve compiled five fascinating facts from our historical research.


1. There’s more than one “Height.”

The Heights CDC motto, "We rise by lifting others," shows the sense of community that stretches across several neighborhoods in the same area. (Heights CDC)
‘The Heights’ isn’t one neighborhood, it's a sort of district with smaller, distinct communities. Highland Heights, Graham Heights, Mitchell Heights, and parts of Nutbush are included.

The Highland Heights area in the western half of The Heights was the first. It began as its own township in the late-1800s. According to several comprehensive histories of the community, the 1902 John Pope Subdivision was the first major housing development. It was situated between Jackson and Summer avenues north-south and Isabelle and Pope streets east-west.

Growth continued into the 1940s and '50s, with a major building boom starting in the late 1920s that expanded development north to the Macon Road area and east to what is now Berclair.

2. It was home to Shelby County’s “pesthouse.”

When John Pope died in 1865, his property was parceled out. In 1872, Shelby County purchased 30 acres between current-day Pope and Holmes streets and Jackson and Guernsey avenues to establish an asylum for the mentally ill. A few years later, the county added facilities for the indigent and elderly. In the 1880s, they built a workhouse for criminal offenders.

With all of the city’s least desirable people in one place, The Shelby County Poorhouse and Workhouse quickly became known as The Pesthouse.

The Shelby County asylum, poorhouse and criminal workhouse were all located on the same campus in The Heights from the 1870s through the 1920s. (Memphis Public Libraries)

In 1874 the city was rocked by a scandal at the pesthouse. Allegations included: scarce and rotten food, rampant sexual assault, a drunken wagon driver dumping sick patients in the streets, and no separation between the insane, sick, criminal, poor, and elderly.

The case's grand jury called it “a stigma of inhumanity and corruption on our whole county.”

The next year showed improvement. The facility's 1875 quarterly report noted only 12 of the 40 patients had died and, “ pesthouse in the entire United States can show a better record.”

An 1884 newspaper article noted there was no carpet and little wood to minimize vermin but all new arrivals received a bath and clean clothes.

“The City Hospital is not nearly so efficient or well-kept,” it reported.

The Shelby County Poorhouse and Workhouse operated into the late 1920s when the state assumed management of the Western Mental Health Institution in Bolivar, Tenn. Asylum patients were transported there while the elderly and indigent went to hospitals and nursing facilities. The Shelby County Penal Farm took the convicted.

In 1944 the land was sold and redeveloped for a post-World War II suburb.

3. The National Cemetery has thousands of unknown soldiers.

Originally called the Mississippi River National Cemetery, National Cemetery sits at present-day 3568 Townes Avenue at the northeastern edge of The Heights. It’s tucked away under a Jackson Avenue viaduct, the view largely obstructed by massive trees. Row upon row of uniformed white marble headstones pay homage to over 40,000 soldiers interred on the grounds from the 1860s until 1992, when the cemetery stopped accepting new burials.

The Union Army founded the cemetery in 1862 after it seized control of the city in the Battle of Memphis, which was a naval battle on the Mississippi River. Many residents watched the fighting from the city’s high bluffs.

Memphis National Cemetery contains the second largest number of unknown remains of any national cemetery with over 7,500 unknown soldiers. (Ziggy Mack)

After the war ended, Union troops scoured camps and battlefields for fallen soldiers, often collecting bodies with no identification and digging up those who were previously buried in unmarked graves or graves with damaged markers.

As a result, the cemetery is home to over 7,500 unknown soldiers. It's the second highest number of any national cemetery.

National Cemetery also contains both known and unknown soldiers lost in the 1865 sinking of the SS Sultana. The riverboat was traveling from New Orleans when it exploded in Memphis. At a previous stop, the ship’s captain was offered $5 for enlisted men and $10 for each officer he could transport. He packed the ship far past capacity. The overtaxed boilers blew and an estimated 1,537 lives were lost, which is roughly the same as the RMS Titanic.

4. National Street had a trolley line to a luxury spa in Raleigh.

The Raleigh Railroad headed east down Broad Avenue and took a left to head up National Street. The white building to the left sits near modern-day Jun Lee Trading Co. (Joe Walk)

In 1893, millionaire tobacco merchant B.L. Duke had a problem. He owned a luxury spa in the town of Raleigh but affluent Memphians with their horses and buggies struggled to get from the city to his rural retreat. 

His solution was a DC-powered electric rail line called the Raleigh Springs Railroad.

The trolley started on Overton Park Avenue, headed through Lea’s Woods in the current Overton Park area, headed east on Broad Avenue, and took a sharp left onto National Street before continuing northeast for several miles. It rounded the National Cemetery and crossed the Wolf River on an iron bridge parallel to Jackson Avenue before hitting a straight shot to Raleigh and the spa.

Duke’s spa was short-lived, but the National Street trolley and its stop at Summer Avenue meant the outskirts of Memphis were suddenly a viable place to live for wealthy white Memphians. They wanted the convenience of jobs and shopping of the city but distance from its social ills.

In "Living on the Line," an article first published in the Commercial Appeal in 1980, Paul R. Coppock described the ride as a “twice-daily adventure” as “cars jounced from side to side as they bounded down long stretches without a cross road.”

Families and businesses move to the area. The streetcar suburb of Highland Heights was born.

In A History of Highland Heights,” Judith Johnson describes the appeal:

“These suburbs were located at the end of the trolley line beyond the smoke and noise of industry, away from the big, outdated homes with their stables and servants’ quarters and beyond the black neighborhoods of Memphis.”

In the early 1920s, Memphis expanded northeast towards Highland Heights, bringing more employers and amenities and less need for a trolley to access Downtown. In the 1940s, the rise of automobiles dealt the final blow to the Raleigh Springs Railroad.

5. Summer Avenue connected the East and West Coasts.

According to historian Joe Walk, Summer Avenue got its start in the mid-1800s as a rural dirt road leading west into the city.

In 1927, Summer became part of Highway 70, the first trucking route across Tennessee. Known as  The Bristol Highway, it stretched 539 miles from Bristol to Memphis. It linked into the Broadway of America, a 3,838-mile system of roads connecting Washington, D.C. to San Diego.

Memphis' first McDonald's, featured here circa 1963, opened in 1958 and was located at 4287 Summer Avenue. (Memphis Landmarks)

Summer Avenue was suddenly part of one of the first coast-to-coast routes in the U.S. It quickly transformed from a semi-rural residential road into a major commercial thoroughfare.

A 1929 Sanborn Insurance Map and city directory show a boom of business at Summer and National with a hardware store, beautician, laundry, mechanic, gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, two pharmacies, and a pool hall.

These records also show Summer east of Highland Street as wholly residential, but by 1948, there were nine businesses near Graham Road. The Summer Center at Waring Road—home to retail and the area’s Kroger—was built in 1956. Two years later, Saul Kaplan opened Memphis’ first McDonald’s across the street at 4287 Summer Avenue.

Today, The Heights’ section of Summer is fully commercial save for a few apartment complexes and the Summer Manor Community. Formerly Leahy’s Trailer Park, the manor is where James Jones pinned "From Here to Eternity" in the 1950s.

“If you can’t find it on Summer, you don’t need it," said Meghan Medford, president of the Summer Avenue Merchants Association.


For more history and all the current happenings in The Heights, stay tuned for our next three months of coverage at and follow us @highgroundnews.

Much of the historical information used in this piece came from the archives of the Memphis and Shelby County Room of the Memphis Public Libraries, specifically, A History of Highland Heights (1993) by former resident, Joe Walk. Walk compiled historical documents from government, news sources, and more into a comprehensive resource on the area’s past. 

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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.