Tennessee River Heritage -- one of MSNHA's three main themes
The Tennessee River is unique to most rivers in North America in that it not only runs east to west, but it makes a northward turn just beyond the Muscle Shoals region and flows north to join the Ohio River at Paducah, KY. This feature made the river a valuable natural asset for the nation, but its rocky shoals prior to the northward bend proved to be a daunting obstacle for many, many years. It would take many attempts and a major war to finally tame the Tennessee River and its shoals.
The 80-mile or so stretch of rocky shoals in the Tennessee River started near Brown's Ferry in Limestone and Morgan County and extended westward to Waterloo in Colbert and Limestone Counties. The low lying shoals, only inches in some areas, effectively stopped boat traffic on the Tennessee River for most of the year and cut the river into two sections. The wild current of the shoals also made it hard to cross and navigate even in the better months of the year.
The shoals became a great concern to the nation's leaders who saw the potential of the 600-mile waterway of the Tennessee River. With the shoals in the way, it was almost impossible to use the Tennessee River effectively to transport supplies to early settlers. It also became a natural defense and obstacle during the Civil War as armies from both sides lined up on opposite sides of the river to fight.
Taming the River
Attempts to circumvent the shoals were proposed as early as 1783 and all attempts failed for nearly a century. These attempts included a major canal project that started in 1830 and was abandoned in 1837, after 17 locks had been constructed along a 12-mile canal system. For forty more years, the canal project would stay dormant.
In 1872, Congress funded new studies along the river and a new canal project was started. Captain George Washington Goethals took over the project and completed the 16-mile long canal, which had 11 locks and was the longest steamboat canal in the world during its time.
Hydroelectricity, Wilson Dam, and War
In the early 1900s, people began to realize another potential the river offered – the chance to harness electricity. An early bid for a license by a group of local businessmen to construct a dam was vetoed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, but in 1916, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916 which allowed for the construction of a dam in the Muscle Shoals region. This first dam, Wilson Dam, supplied hydroelectric power to two nitrate munitions plants which were instrumental in the nation's involvement in World War I and World War II. The Wilson Locks and Dam submerged the Muscle Shoals, opening the upper Tennessee River for navigation. The project was so successful that it led to the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and a second dam, Wheeler Dam, was constructed upstream from Wilson Dam.