Dear Vance: You’ve written before about a number of airplane accidents in Memphis. What do you know about the crash of a small plane in the middle of West Memphis sometime in the late 1950s?– L.M., memphis.
Dear L.M.: Our city has seen a surprising number of airplane disasters. Probably the worst took place on April 29, 1944, when a B-25 bomber plunged into a house just west of Cleveland, killing everyone in the home and aboard the plane. And I’ve been told about the stormy night of March 15, 1963, when a military transport plummeted to the ground near Millington, narrowly missing a row of homes in a new subdivision. That event had a happier ending; the 33 crewmen escaped with cuts and bruises, and nobody in those homes was hurt.
The West Memphis crash in the early afternoon of March 7, 1955, was a disaster for the plane itself, which was totally destroyed. But it was a lucky break for the pilot and his passenger, who received only minor injuries, and no one on the ground was hurt at all — a miracle considering the plane somehow missed smashing into a gas station on the busiest street in town.
On that morning, Joe Bowen, a skilled pilot who operated the Bowen Flying Service in West Memphis, and Paul McKinney, a professional photographer, hopped into a four-seater Cessna 170. Now I don’t have a clue about the various models of Cessnas, or Beechcrafts, or other small planes, but I tossed the model number into the story so you would see the kind of detail that I provide at no extra cost, if you are curious about such things and have a special fondness for Cessnas.
Anway, the two men flew around eastern Arkansas for several hours, taking aerial photographs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Something went wrong around 1:30 that afternoon, and the various newspaper accounts include some interesting contradictions. More about that in a minute, if you have the time. What everyone does agree on is the plane’s engine stopped. “I’m a pilot,” an eyewitness, Paul K. Doyle, told reporters later. “I looked up and saw this plane coming in from the west, no power, the prop windmilling.”
I’m no pilot, but I gather that means the propeller was just spinning in the breeze, and the plane was in trouble. “She came in under some high power lines,” continued Doyle, “but was unable to miss one, hit it, and flipped over. It crashed into a light pole and the street at the same time.”
The plane smashed into Missouri Street, right in front of the old Crittenden Theatre, and slid to a stop only 200 feet from Leggett’s Esso Station on Broadway. The Memphis Press-Scimitar observed, “If it had gone another 25 feet it would have crashed into five gas storage tanks behind the service station.”
Again, I’m no pilot, but I think we can agree that would have changed the way this whole thing ended.
Men and women rushed to the crumpled plane and gently pulled the two men out. They were unconscious but alive. A Citizens Ambulance took them to the Crittenden Memorial Hospital, where they were treated for shock and minor lacerations, and firemen washed leaking gas off the street, so there was no fire or explosion. The next day, the plane, or what was left of it, was hauled away.
As I said, everyone was fortunate, and the newspaper thought it was important to mention that “a new and expensive camera McKinney had on the jaunt was not damaged in the crash.” Well, thank goodness. I’m sure that was a relief to every man, woman, and child in West Memphis. The camera was okay!
In the hospital, Bowen told his wife, “We didn’t get fuel,” and some people thought he meant the Cessna simply ran out of gas — but later somebody figured out he was explaining they encountered a problem with the fuel pump.
Now what about this controversy I mentioned earlier? Well, the owner of the gas station told the Press-Scimitar he didn’t hear the plane “but did see it hit the high wire and flip over.” Newspaper photos (as you can see here) showed the Cessna, “like a dead bird,” lying crumpled on its back in the street, one wing apparently ripped off.
Well, in a follow-up newspaper story the next day, Bowen claimed he landed the plane that way on purpose: “Two men are alive today because of the air know-how of veteran West Memphis pilot and airport operator Joe Bowen, who cushioned the fall of his Cessna 170 in the middle of downtown West Memphis.” In fact, “Bowen had often discussed just such an emergency landing with Press-Scimitar Aviation Editor Hilmon Pinegar.”
The story continued: “Bowen’s theory was this: Letting the plane down on one wing absorbs impact and cushions the fall. And putting the plane on its back allows the rudder to absorb some of the shock and keeps the cockpit from striking the ground, providing a further measure of protection to the occupants strapped in their seats.”
As I keep reminding everyone, I’m not pilot, but since the photos show the cockpit smushed completely flat into the asphalt, I’m not so sure I agree with this “theory.” In fact, anyone looking at the picture probably wonders how the men inside survived at all. And since eyewitnesses saw the plane flip over after it hit the wire, I’m not certain Bowen “put the plane on its back.” Not intentionally, anyway. But I certainly give him credit for a skilled job in a bad situation, because sure enough he glided a dead plane past a gas station and beyond the cars and trucks along Broadway. As a result, he was the pilot in the best kind of crash landing — the one passengers walk away from.
Memphis Floral Shop
Dear Vance: I found a snapshot (right) for the Memphis Floral Company pasted in an old scrapbook. Where was the shop located, and when was it in business?— T.F., Germantown
Dear T.F.: It’s a tiny photo, barely 2 inches wide, and it would have helped if it had shown more of the background, but judging from the light-bulb-illuminated sign, you can see that this flower shop obviously offered ROSES.
As best I can tell, the Memphis Floral Company opened in the late 1800s, in a little brick building at the corner of Walker and College, operated by a fellow named T.A. Lamb, and later by another gentleman named W. Oliver King. This would have put it close to the (now closed) south gate of Elmwood Cemetery. It’s possible the firm actually opened many years earlier, because a few of their ads say “Since 1855” but they don’t make that remarkable claim consistently enough to convince me it’s true.
Over the years, the greenhouses remained there, but as other owners took over, the shop itself moved to various locations downtown: 77 South Main, 54 South Main, 130 Union, and 124 Union. In the 1950s, the company moved to Midtown, to 1332 Overton Park and later 1235 Union Avenue. It stayed in business, promoting itself as “Memphis’ Headquarters for Cut Flowers” and always offering “Prompt Attention and Artistic Execution” until the mid-1980s, when it became Methodist Flowers and Gifts, located in the hospital complex.
So, if despite all the changes in owners and locations, we say it’s the same company, and if it indeed opened in 1855, that would make this little flower shop one of the oldest businesses in Memphis.
Where and when was your photograph taken? The shop seems to be tucked away in the basement of a substantial building, so I’d say this was 1918-1920, when it was at 77 South Main and the city directories specified “basement.” This would have put it at Main and Union, below the old Security Bank and Trust Company. Look carefully and you’ll see a poster for the silent movie Nobody Home, a 1919 comedy starring Dorothy Gish. At the same time, I feel somewhat uneasy about this date. The woman’s clothing seems to be from that period, but were men wearing such dapper Mad Men hats almost a century ago?
And I know you’re waiting for me to tell you this, but I have no idea who the man and woman in the photo are. Haven’t I done enough work for one afternoon?.
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