A forgotten name and family who made a real difference in our community, William B Fowler.
Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.
William Bingham Fowler, born September 23, 1886, served the citizens of Memphis for more than 69 years. During this period of time the city went from brick and cobblestone streets, to what we have today. He served no fewer than 11 mayors including Watkins Overton, Walter Chandler and E. H. Crump. Every public works project which was done between 1918 and 1962, the last when he was 75 years old.
He began his career as a water boy and then a helper in the sewer department in 1900. While attending high school he received an appointment to the Naval Academy. He was only there for a short time, realizing that the military was not his calling. He never attended college and was basically a self-taught engineer acquiring his skills while on the job. During his time with the city he took many classes and studied engineering classes. He worked his way up through the ranks of city government, and was appointed Superintendent of the Parks System. During his tenure he was instrumental in the design of the Memphis Zoo.
On September 1, 1918 he was appointed Assistant City Engineer. Nine months later he was promoted to City Engineer, a position he held until his retirement in 1969.
Mr. Fowler’s first wife died of scarlet fever after 10 years of marriage. He later married Margaret Williams, a former school teacher, and school principal from Lucy, Tennessee. Mrs. Fowler became the chairman of the City Beautiful Commission, and was a tireless worker in many local civic clubs and major projects. She was the driving force behind a group of very influential women who were the wives of City and County leaders. Her picture can be seen in many of the photos of the day. She was the power force behind Memphis being named the Cleanest City in the Nation in 1951. We beat out 2000 other cities. We can thank her for safe and clean streets and buildings. Health, welfare, noise abatement, crime, water and public works were all taken into consideration for the award.
During William B Fowler’s, career he was directly involved in the following projects: Summer Avenue Viaduct, Poplar Avenue Viaduct, all Storm drains and streets, the McLemore bridge, the S Third Street bridge ( this was just south of McLemore ), our very elaborate flood control system which keep the Mississippi River out of the city, Crump Stadium, Riverside Drive, Presidents Island, the Memphis Arkansas Bridge, the annexations of Binghamton in 1919, Highland Heights in 1929 and Whitehaven in 1969.
In 1937 during one of the worst floods we have ever had he was not at his desk because he was out in a boat with E. H. Crump surveying flood damage. Mayor Watkins Overton fired him until Mr. Crump found out and he was quickly rehired. Mayor Overton didn’t want to quarrel with Mr. Crump. In 1940 when a street collapsed in front of Mr. Crump’s home on Peabody, Bill Fowler was not reappointed for several years, but continued to do the job as he had since he started. Mr. and Mrs. Fowler were real Memphis Makers. We owe them a lot.
Thanks to Lynn Fowler, granddaughter of William B Fowler for help with this history.