A New Beginning for the Muscle Shoals Reservation

For over 100 years, a 1,000-acre parcel in Colbert County, Ala., has been home to those who’ve worked to tame a river, harness electricity, win world wars and feed a nation. Now it’s ready to start a new chapter in its history.

APRIL 5, 2018—Few places in America have had such an august impact on our nation and the world as that of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Muscle Shoals Reservation. This month, about 900 acres of the storied reservation in Colbert County, Ala., goes on the auction block to promote economic development in the region.  

To learn more about the impact the reservation has had on history, we caught up with TVA’s historian Pat Ezzell. While Ezzell points out that the Muscle Shoals region has been an important cultural center for Native American history for thousands of years, we asked her to highlight the property’s more modern past.

“For over 100 years the Muscle Shoals Reservation has helped shape modern American history,” says Ezzell. “Early on we saw the area’s potential to tame a river, harness electricity, win world wars and feed a nation.” And what a story she has to tell:

The Beginning

In 1916 Congress passed the National Defense Act which authorized the construction of two nitrate plants and the building of Wilson Dam in north Alabama at what would come to be known as the Muscle Shoals Reservation.

At the time, the nation's munitions supply was dependent on nitrate imports from Chile. The new nitrate plants would enable American independence in weapons development. And with America’s involvement in World War I on the horizon, the new dam would supply additional electricity for the War Department’s vital domestic munitions plants.

With the end of WWI in 1917, the plants fell idle. However, construction of the dam continued, and planning began for the post-war use of the Muscle Shoals facilities.

During the 1920s, the Shoals area was mired in controversy. Governmental and private interests knew the area was important but they could not agree on a path forward.

Privatization?

Throughout the 1920’s, private interests fought to gain rights to the Muscle Shoals Reservation. Henry Ford saw an opportunity to snap up cheap and plentiful power from a dam still under construction—and build an automobile-manufacturing city. 

Other big name companies like Alabama Power and Union Carbide lined up to get control of the site. But none of the plans were as audacious as Ford’s. He boasted he would build the “Detroit of the South.”

While it cost the government $130 million to build the Muscle Shoals facilities, Ford proposed to lease Wilson Dam for $5 million, and promised to employ one million people in Alabama. But it was not to be. Senator George Norris, who served as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, launched a fight to retain the dam as federal property. In fact, Norris stated that if Ford’s low bid was accepted, it would amount to the “greatest gift ever bestowed upon mortal man since salvation was made free to the human race.”  The fight dragged on in Congress; Ford lost his patience and he withdrew his offer.

While the struggle over Muscle Shoals private ownership ended, the seeds of the idea for TVA and public power were planted.

Although Ford never did get his operations going, today—with the help of TVA—four big automakers call the Valley home and Toyota-Mazda announced a $1.6 billion factory in northern Alabama.

The TVA Years

By the time of the presidential election in November 1932, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression. Being a bold man, President-elect Roosevelt announced a plan for the comprehensive development of the Tennessee River basin.

On May 18, 1933, President Roosevelt signed the TVA Act. That set in motion a process that would change the Tennessee Valley and the nation to this day.

The TVA Act directed the corporation to maintain its principal office in the immediate vicinity of Muscle Shoals. Since then the reservation evolved as TVA accomplished its mission to serve the people to make life better.

According to TVA records, Muscle Shoals served the nation well, both during peacetime and war.  During WWII and the Korean Conflict, it supplied a major portion of the phosphorus needed by our armed forces for use in munitions. During the Cold War era, TVA made a phosphate-based component used in the production of nerve gas. 

In addition, TVA employees at Muscle Shoals developed new fertilizers and tested new farming methods that were adopted across the country and around the world. This reservation was TVA’s living agricultural laboratory. The programs developed here became the model for modern agricultural practices that feed us today.  

More than 75 percent of the fertilizer products, or the processes for their manufacture, used in the world today were developed at the TVA Center in Muscle Shoals. Patents on TVA technology exceed 300, and more than 700 licenses for use of this technology have been granted.

TVA’s work has continued on the reservation for almost 85 years. In the mid-1940s, which may have been its peak, nearly 4,000 TVA employees worked on the Muscle Shoals Reservation.  Today, about 500 TVA employees are stationed at Muscle Shoals doing engineering, natural resources and heavy maintenance work.

The Future

The April 20, 2018, auction comes nearly six years after the TVA Board of Directors declared the property surplus—authorizing TVA to sell the property with an eye towards promoting jobs and investment in the community.

TVA has worked with the Northwest Alabama Cooperative District (NACD) to develop a comprehensive master plan for the surplus land. NACD supports TVA’s effort to sell the land for redevelopment.

TVA has confirmed that it will retain about 100 acres of the Muscle Shoals Reservation and another approximate 1,200 acres located adjacent to the Tennessee River. This includes Wilson Dam, office buildings for employees and the nationally recognized Rock Pile Recreation Area.

As TVA’s influence over the Muscle Shoals Reservation comes to a close, we’re all hopeful about the future. As the world changed around the reservation, it evolved to meet those changes. Let's see what the next 100 years will bring.

A Presidential Prediction

On May 18, 1963, President Kennedy visited the Muscle Shoals Reservation on TVA’s 30th anniversary to recognize TVA and the important work being done on the reservation. 

Standing in front of the Chemical Engineering Building, Kennedy praised TVA saying “The work of TVA will never be done until the work of our country is done....For in the minds of men the world over, the initials T-V-A stand for progress, and the people of this area welcome progress.”