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The Mysterious Tunnel System Inside DeSoto Mounds—Memphis, TN First Published Photo

By Dr. Greg Little

Portions of this article come from The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks.

DeSoto Mounds are on a high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River at a location described by Mark Twain as having the absolute best view of the Mississippi River—anywhere. The site is located at Delaware and DeSoto Streets in downtown Memphis adjacent to the “old bridge” where I-55 crosses the river. It was originally a large mound complex with a surrounding village containing 9 large platform mounds and several burial mounds in its central area. Today, only two large platform mounds survive in the 17-acre park area named Chickasaw Heritage Park. The site overlooks a huge bend in the river giving a spectacular view of several miles of the river. The park was formerly known as DeSoto Mounds Park because it is widely thought that Hernando DeSoto may have had his first glimpse of the Mississippi River at the location in May of 1541. DeSoto called the site he visited Quiz-Quiz. The mound complex was constructed in the late 1400’s and is one of many mound sites located near or in Memphis. One of the massive platform mounds has a diamond shape and has several tiers. It has a long ramp oriented to the setting sun at the Winter Solstice.

Because of its elevation and commanding view of the river, the area around the mounds was established as a fort during the Civil War. Cannons were placed on top of several mounds and the tallest platform mound, situated on the edge of the bluff and standing over 25-feet in height, was hollowed out and cannons were placed on the top edges. A tunnel was dug deep into the mound and a munitions storage room was constructed inside the mound. From there the tunnel continued down to the river’s edge. Many of the other mounds were destroyed during the Civil War so the soil could be used to erect earthworks around the fort.

In the 1890’s the City of Memphis turned the area into a park and erected a wooden dance floor inside the hollowed mound and the tunnel was sealed. The tunnel has not been accessible since that time but has been the focus of several mystery books. David Childress’ 1992 book “Lost Cities of North and Central America” mentions the mound tunnel as well as other tunnels running under Memphis. The city does, in fact, have numerous old tunnels—few of which can be entered. Below is a photo of the tunnel inside the mound, which is the only one I have ever seen. The photo was taken in 2013 and shows a well-built and well-preserved brick-lined pathway.

Thursday, August 18, 2022