Because of the shoals in the Tennessee River, transportation methods and routes required a lot of strategic planning and thought for the region's residents. Often, the question for travelers was how to cross the river on foot and later how to get around the shoals by rail. Today, many of the historic transportation routes such as the Natchez Trace are still in use and reminders of the heyday of railways can be found at historic railroad depots throughout the region.
The Natchez Trace and the Tennessee River
The earlier means of transportation in the Muscle Shoals region and the surrounding area was by foot, horse, and water. Two of the major transportation routes – the Natchez Trace and the Tennessee River – converged in the Muscle Shoals region and was used by Native Americans, traders, and settlers. As traders would travel home on the Natchez Trace, they would cross the shallow shoals of the river near where Bear Creek and the Tennessee River met and later would use Colbert's Ferry a few miles upstream. This route would later be extended with the addition of the Great Valley Road, which connected the Natchez Trace to Washington D.C. and ultimately, the Muscle Shoals region with the East Coast.
Other Major Roads
The Natchez Trace in its early days was merely a footpath, which created logistical problems for General Andrew Jackson who petitioned Congress for a new road to be constructed. This new road, Jackson's Highway (also known as Jackson's Military Road) connected Nashville to New Orleans through the Muscle Shoals and parts of the route are still used today.
Another key road that was constructed in the area during the early 1800s was Gaines Trace. This road provided a route between the Tennessee River just east of the Muscle Shoals to the Tombigbee River in Mississippi, creating an easier trade route between the Shoals area and Mobile Bay. The City of Russellville grew up around the crossroads of Gaines Trace and Jackson's Military Road.
The state's first public road was constructed in the Muscle Shoals region, beginning near the Tennessee River in Courtland and ending near Tuscaloosa. Byler Road, built by John Byler, created a north-south trade route for the state.
Railroads Provide a Way Around the River
Attempts to build a canal to provide an easier transportation route on the Tennessee River, frustrated many of the region's residents and caused leaders in Tuscumbia to push for a new railroad instead. The construction of the Tuscumbia Railroad was believed to be the first railroad west of the Alleghenies and earned Tuscumbia the nickname "America's First Frontier Railroad Town". The Tuscumbia Railroad was later extended to Decatur, becoming the Tuscumbia-Courtland-Decatur Railroad and circumventing the shoals on the Tennessee River.
Railroads were pivotal for the area. It helped cause a boom in the population, growing from 41,084 in 1824 to 78,648 in 1850. They also provided a way for farmer's to ship their cotton and other harvests to outside markets. In later years, the railroads would send and bring industrial products and resources to and from the region. These railroads are still key to the success of many of the industries located throughout the region.
Steamboats on the River
The Tennessee River became an even more important transportation route with the invention of the steamboat. These boats could power up and down rivers, finally allowing traders to make a return trip up the river after unloading their wares in the port of Natchez and the Gulf ports of Mobile and New Orleans. The untamed shoals in the Muscle Shoals region hampered the use of steamboats in the region, but they were still quite popular and important to the region.