LAUDERDALE COUNTY, ALABAMA
HISTORY OF THE SHOALS
The following was published in the Times Daily, Thursday, February 25, 1999. It is presented here with the permission of the Times Daily, and the permission of the author, Harry E. Wallace.
The New Century
The spirit and energy of the 20th century can be
credited to many forces, but among the most notable are industrialism,
immigration and the dynamic leadership of Theodore Roosevelt.
In northwest Alabama, that energy was visible in the efforts to harness and develop the industrial potential of Muscle Shoals. One of the early visionaries who saw the massive potential of the shoals was John W. Worthington.
Worthington was born in Trussville on Jan. 14, 1856, and educated at the University of Alabama as a civil engineer. After working in the steel industry in Birmingham, he came to Sheffield in 1885, employed by the Sloss Furnace Co.
According to an article by Clopper Almon, Worthington was primarily responsible for organizing the Sheffield Water Co., Light and Power Co., Sheffield Hotel Corp., The Sheffield Co., Sheffield Cast Iron and Foundry Co., Sheffield Land, Iron, and Coal Co., and the street car system in cooperation with the Parsons family of New York.
In 1906, Worthington helped organize the Tennessee River Improvement Association. J. H. Nathan of Sheffield was general vice president and John D. Rather of Tuscumbia and Henry A. Bradshaw of Florence were district vice presidents.
Hydroelectric firm founded
That same year, the Muscle Shoals Hydroelectric
Co. was founded with
financial support from Charles H. Baker of New York and Frank S. Washburn.
Worthington proposed to make the Tennessee River navigable by constructing high
dams and produce cheap electric power.
Worthington, Washburn and Baker proposed a joint partnership between the federal government and private enterprise to achieve these goals.
Sometime in 1906, Worthington moved his office to Washington, D. C. In 1906, Baker and Washburn organized the American Cynamid Co. to produce nitrates through fixation of nitrogen from the atmosphere. Their first factory was at Niagara Falls, N. Y.
In 1915, a unique event occurred in Florence when Thurston Allen proposed constructing a "chimney-less/smoke-less" city along Cypress Creek.
He envisioned the utilization of a 30-foot drop in the creek bed and constructing a 40-foot dam to produce electricity for industry and homes.
He further offered to sell surplus electricity to the city of Florence but World War I and local skepticism ended Allen's dream.
Some local people believed the dreams for "Allentown" were truly ahead of their time.
A need for nitrates
With the outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914, the American source for
nitrates from Chile became vulnerable. Historian Daniel Schaffer has written
extensively on the subject and its effect on the Shoals.
Schaffer said the monopolistic attitude of Chile and an annual budget of $12 million convinced many that the United States needed to ensure a steady supply of nitrates for national defense. National concern resulted in the passage of the National Defense Act of 1916.
Congress appropriated $20 million for the construction of two plants; one to test the American Cynamid process patented by Baker and Washburn and the other to test the German Haber process.
Intelligence reports stated that Germany had acquired nitrate independence through the use of the Haber process, recently stolen by the British and offered to America for experimentation. Quickly, the government found 217 sites for possible construction but the Interdepartmental Nitrate Board took more than one year to make its recommendation to President Woodrow Wilson.
Schaffer said government requirements for the plant included that the site be at least 200 miles from the nearest international border and 200 miles from the seacoast, have ample hydroelectric potential and have plentiful supplies of limestone for the peacetime production of fertilizer.
Local officials became enthusiastic despite intense regional competition. Finally on Jan. 12, 1917, the Interdepartmental Nitrate Board recommended to President Wilson that Black River was their first choice; Muscle Shoals second and the Holston River region north of Knoxville third.
Disappointment reigned. The fulfillment of the economic dreams of the founders of the shoals was vanishing before their eyes. Wilson delayed announcing his final decision for nearly four weeks.
The delay gave Muscle Shoals' proponents, including Worthington, one last chance to convince the president.
Muscle Shoals selected
Schaffer said Wilson was not persuaded by the
local campaign but was convinced
by the fact that Muscle Shoals had the hydro potential of producing 680,000
kilowatts of electricity, more than twice the capacity of Niagara Falls.
On Sept. 24, 1917, President Wilson announced that Muscle Shoals would receive the plant for the experimental Haber process.
The government needed almost 1,900 acres and warned that locating the plant would depend on favorable land prices. Local speculators quickly realized the potential and real estate prices rose sharply. A five-room home priced at $3,500 rose to $10,000. Commercial locations renting for $87.50 per month rose to $400 per month.
Nitrate Plant No. 1 was to be built near Sheffield and when completed would produce some 22,000 tons of nitrates. The first ground was broken in October 1917.
On Nov. 16, 1917, the government announced Muscle Shoals also would receive the second plant to experiment with the American Cynamid process. This announcement virtually ensured the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam. Nitrate Plant No. 2 would require 2,300 acres and was estimated to produce 110,000 tons of nitrates annually.
Plants fuel population growth
Construction on these facilities caused a virtual population boom. The worker
population rose from 300 in January 1818 to 21,000 in August 1918. By March 1918,
a tent city to house 10,000 workers was completed in a swampy area near the
A model community, later known as the Village, was constructed near Nitrate Plant No. 1. The Village contained 132 houses on streets laid out in the shape of the Liberty Bell. In addition, the Tri-cities began construction campaigns of their own, building hotels to accommodate the expected visitors.
Tragedy struck the Shoals during the winter of 1917-18 in the form of a two-week cold snap. The river froze and construction virtually came to a halt, forcing delays. On Jan. 12, 1918,the temperature was 8 degrees below zero and blocks of ice floated in the river.
Plans for dam announced
On Feb. 25, 1918, the government announced the construction of a
hydroelectric dam at Muscle Shoals, carrying an estimated $30 million price tag.
The Huntsville Daily Times predicted a solid city connecting Huntsville with
Florence and estimated the population of Florence could reach 500,000 by1923 or
But problems persisted. Despite high wages of 30 cents per hour, worker shortages occurred.
Schaffer said some 80,000 were hired to keep 20,000 actually working. The high turnover rate was attributed to poor living conditions, housing shortages, price gouging, racial discrimination against the 7,000 black workers, and a poor family atmosphere. A Tri-Cities committee was created to find solutions for these problems and discourage high prices.
Ronald D. Young and Earl H. Brown researched the actual construction of the nitrate plants for TVA and have said an average of 111 railcars of construction equipment and materials was received each day for a total of 31,000 carloads.
In all, 236 permanent structures were built, 32 of which were actual manufacturing facilities. In addition, 165 miles of sewer lines and service lines were laid and 685 miles of electric cable were installed.
To house and feed nearly 20,000 workers was a chore. Twenty- three military-style mess halls were built to serve more than 24,000 meals per day. An example of a daily menu included 750 gallons of soup, 18 bushels of potatoes, two tons of meat, 13,000 loaves of bread, 1,000 pies, 1,200 cakes, 700 cinnamon rolls and 150 gallons of pudding. In one 48-hour period, 30,000 pounds of meat was cooked.
The dreams of the founding fathers of the Shoals seemed to be coming to pass. Groundbreaking for the dam was scheduled for Aug. 18, 1918, to coincide with the publicized centennial celebration in Florence. But enthusiasm was dampened when Wilson announced that the dam would not be completed until after the war.
In October and November 1918, a second natural disaster struck. The deadly influenza epidemic struck 46 states, killing 500,000. Nearly 8,000 were sick locally. Unknown numbers of construction workers, mainly foreigners, were buried on the construction site.
Experiment turns sour
During this crisis period, the first experiment was conducted at Nitrate
Plant No. 1 with 82 tons produced in a 72-hour period.
The experiment failed because the theory proved flawed and the plant was ordered closed. On Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed and on Nov. 25 and 26, Nitrate Plant No. 2 went into production. At this juncture there were two nitrate plants and the dam was 35 percent complete with only two of eight generators installed.
The facilities were fenced and left idle until June 1921. Again the economic bubble had burst.
Henry ford enters picture
On June 21, 1921, Henry Ford and others arrived in Florence to inspect the
government facilities and word quickly spread that Ford was going to purchase
the government installations.
The rumors were verified on July 8, 1921, when Ford submitted his bid to the secretary of war. Almon, in his writings of the period, stated that John Worthington helped organize the Ford proposal to buy the entire government operation.
Schaffer has reported that Ford's offer shocked conservatives in the government because Ford offered $5 million in cash for a government investment of nearly $110 million.
The second portion of the offer included government completion of Wilson Dam and another dam (Wheeler) at an additional cost of about $28 million. Ford would lease the dams for 100 years and pay 6 percent interest on the $28 million for six years.
A third phase of the offer included establishing a fund into which Ford would pay $46,547 annually for 100 years to reimburse the government. Also, $55,000 per year would be paid for repairs and maintenance of the dams and locks.
Finally, Ford agreed to operate Nitrate No. 2 for fertilizer production, hold fertilizer profits at 8 percent, and keep the plant in readiness for national defense.
Investors respond positively
Local real estate, business and industry began to boom once again. Even Wall
Street took notice as Ford Motor Co. stock prices rose. But conservatives in
Congress were highly disappointed. Three weeks after Ford's bid was submitted,
the secretary of war asked Ford to modify the bid clarifying his intent for
electric and fertilizer production.
Additional pressure came from farmers and Nebraska Sen. George Norris, who pressured for public ownership and operation of the facilities.
By November 1921, with Congress stalled, Ford began a campaign to stimulate public support. Ford and Thomas Edison arrived in Florence on Dec. 3, 1921, by Ford's private train, Fairlane. During a three-day stay, Ford said he would build a city 75 miles long that would become the greatest industrial center in the nation, hire one million people and eliminate poverty in the region.
Southern sentiment favored Ford and southland congressmen lobbied hard for passage. But as time passed, national opposition mounted to the bid and charges of profiteering at taxpayers' expense continued to surface. In addition, Sen. George Norris wrote a bill allowing public ownership and the creation of two companies: one for power production and the other for fertilizer production.
In 1922 and '23, Alabama Power Co. offered bids for the Muscle Shoals properties. Although their offer exceeded Ford's, they were not interested in fertilizer production. In October 1924, feeling the situation hopeless, Ford withdrew his bid. Local dreams with visions of sugarplums were once again dashed.
Wilson dam completed
Wilson Dam was completed in 1925, flooding the greatest portion of the 1890
canal. Only locks 1 and 2 of the main canal and locks A and B of the Elk River
Canal remained exposed. On March 3, 1925, Congress appropriated money for
construction of an auxiliary lock and dam 2.5 miles below Wilson Dam, but
bureaucratic red tape and the stock market crash of 1929 scuttled that plan.
From 1924-30, Norris introduced legislation calling for public ownership of the entire Muscle shoals properties.
One of the dynamic developments of the 20th century was new transportation. Locally that became the inter-urban streetcar system. Turner Rice said in October 1903, that the Sheffield Street Railway Cooperation was founded by J. W. Worthington, George Parson of Maine and Henry Parsons of New York. The corporation was to construct, maintain and operate an electric inter-urban street railway system.
Street cars link cities
The service began on May 15, 1904, between Sheffield and Tuscumbia and on
July 2, 1904, it was linked with Florence via the railroad bridge. The 12 miles
of track linked the three towns with the terminal in Sheffield. Coal-fired
generators at the Old Barn provided electric current.
In Florence, the trolley looped the East Florence business district, moved north on Royal Avenue and west up "Catholic Hill" to Tennessee Street. After a ride west on Tennessee, the car turned north onto Cherry and then west on Tuscaloosa at "Angel's Corner."
It tracked one block west on Tuscaloosa, north on Poplar to Nellie, Nellie across Wood Avenue to Morrison past the Normal College and then south on Court Street. Court to Reeder Street, west two blocks on Reeder, then a curved descent south along Crest Street to the bridge.
The trolley ran on top of the bridge, 60 feet above the river, eventually crossing into Colbert County. After winding through the woods, the trolley came to Atlanta Avenue, south down Atlanta to First Street, then north on Montgomery past the Sheffield Hotel, west on Sixth Street to the Old Barn and south through Furnace Hill to Tuscumbia.
In Tuscumbia the trolley ran south on Water Street, looped through the business district on Main, and back onto Water for the return trip.
Inner-city trips were 5 cents, trips between Sheffield and Tuscumbia were 10 cents and to or from Florence, 15 cents. Trolleys operated on hourly schedules originally, but as demand increased, more cars were added, reducing time.
The total time for a one-way trip from Tuscumbia to Florence was approximately 45 minutes. Each car carried 60 to 70 passengers, but during the World War I boom, cars were packed. To accommodate the extra passengers, trailers were hooked to cars.
Eventually the automobile forced the company to close on Feb. 3, 1933.
Auto bridge need seen
Increased automobile traffic required bridges. Wilson Dam opened in
1925,giving drivers an alternative to the old railroad bridge. During the Great
Depression the state floated a bond issue to build a new four-lane bridge.
O'Neal Bridge opened in 1939 and was initially a toll bridge. The toll was 15 cents, habitual users paid 10 cents and trucks and buses were charged by the weight and cargo.
In 1940, a constitutional amendment was passed to remove the toll and float a new bond issue to pay of the bridge. At midnight on Dec. 18, 1950, the mayors of the Tri-cities and Gov. Frank Murray Dixon paid the last toll.
In 1933, three years into the worst economic depression in American history, more than 50 percent of the people in the Tennessee Valley were on government relief, starvation was a serious threat, seven million acres of prime farmland were rapidly eroding, 98 of 100 homes were without electricity and property taxes often exceeded annual incomes.
TVA addresses problems
Public money for roads, schools, hospitals, parks, bridges and public
services was almost non-existent. In this context, Congress passed Norris' bill
that became the catalyst for the TVA Act. The act was introduced on April 10,
passed by Congress on May 17, and signed into law by FDR on May 18, 1933.
The TVA Act set comprehensive goals and unified government operations under one agency. It provided for development of the river for navigation, land development to prevent erosion, the promotion of better farming methods, the production of cheap hydroelectric power and flood control.
Wilson Dam was the cornerstone for TVA's comprehensive flood control and navigation programs for the Tennessee River. Construction began April 14, 1918, and the first commercial power was produced Sept. 12, 1925.
The dam is 259.4 miles from the mouth of the Tennessee River. It is 137 feet high, 4,541 feet long and has 154 miles of impounded shoreline.
The single-lift 110-by 600-foot lock was begun in July 1956 and completed in November 1959.
Excavation on Wheeler Dam began in November 1932 by the Army Corps of Engineers. After the passage of the TVA Act, Wheeler was put under the control of TVA and construction began Nov. 21, 1933.
Wheeler is 16 miles above Wilson and 244.9 miles from the river's mouth. The dam is 6,342 feet long, 72 feet high, and impounds 1,063 miles of shoreline. The 60-by 360-foot lock with a lift of 52 feet was completed in 1935. The dam was finished in Oct. 3, 1936, and the cost was about $42,206,000.
Local citizens in the early 1900s increasingly saw the need for more public education. The first high school in Florence was founded in 1914, with classes held in various locations, mainly on Pine Street.
On July 21, 1916, Camilla Coffee, widow of Alexander Donelson Coffee, sold the city property for the new school for $1. The cornerstone for Coffee High School was laid Oct. 12, 1916, and the school opened Sept. 10, 1917. The final cost was $95,000 an outrageous amount, according to many residents at the time.
In 1919, the five-room Brandon School was moved to a lot on Sweetwater Avenue. Ada Coffee was the principal. In March 1921, Gilbert School began on Sherrod Avenue. Henry Grady Richard served as principal.
Education for blacks
On July 7, 1903, the Burrell Normal High School began in Florence after
moving from Selma. The American Missionary Society initiated the move after a
fire that destroyed the school in Selma.
The Slater Elementary School on South Court was operated by the city for black students in grades one through seven. In 1937, Florence assumed operation of the Burrell Normal School and appointed W. H. Lewis as principal.
In Tuscumbia, Trenholm High School for black students was founded in 1921.
G. W. Trenholm was principal of the missionary school from 1896 to 1916. He was praised for his work and dedication. While in Tuscumbia he published The American Star newspaper and served as the editor for 15 years. He left Tuscumbia to direct black teacher institutes statewide.
In 1920, Trenholm became president of Alabama State College and served until his death in 1925.
Other black schools established were Sterling in Sheffield, Leighton Training, Cherokee Training and West End and East End in Lauderdale.
College enrollment grows
Florence Normal College began summer sessions in 1911. By the 1920s the
school was so crowded that the day was extended from 7:15 a.m. to 6 p.m.
In 1929, the school was named Florence State Teachers College. The facilities included Wesleyan Hall, Wesleyan Annex, Kilby School and O'Neal Hall. During the Depression many facilities were added to the campus: Bibb Graves Hall in 1930; the Amphitheater in 1934; Collier Library, the gym, Willingham Hall and Powers Hall in 1939; the Student Lodge and the President's Home in 1941.
The Shoals produced two individuals who would become respected and revered nationally and internationally. William Christopher Handy was born in Florence on Nov. 16, 1873. His father and grandfather were African Methodist Episcopal ministers and wanted him to follow suit.
But W. C. Handy wanted to boogie. He learned the rudiments of music from his mentor, Young A Wallace. After leaving home, Handy worked in the Birmingham steel mills and played in bands at night.
When the Depression cost him his job, Handy became a music teacher at Alabama A&M. After two years, he was asked to leave because the administration disapproved of the ragtime music he taught his students.
W. C. Handy's reputation grows
Handy's musical journeys eventually carried him to St. Louis where he was
inspired to write "St. Louis Blues." After moving to Memphis, Handy
organized a band to promote the election of E. H. "Boss" Crump. The
election theme song eventually became known as "The Memphis Blues."
Handy wrote more than 150 sacred and secular songs. In 1940, he conducted the New York World's Fair Orchestra and in 1941, he spearheaded a drive that sold more then $1 million in Liberty Bonds.
Handy played his last concert in Florence in 1949 at the Princess Theater. Gradually losing his eyesight, he organized the W. C. Handy foundation for the Blind. In his last years he was confined to a wheelchair. He died at his New York City home on March 19, 1958.
At his funeral, a Harlem minister said, "Gabriel now has an understudy. When the last trumpet shall sound, Handy will blow the last blues."
Handy once said that life was like his old horn; if you don't put something into it, you don't get anything out.
Helen Keller world leader
Helen Keller was born a normal, healthy child at her father's Ivy Green
plantation in Tuscumbia on June 24, 1880. At 19 months old she had scarlet
fever, which left her blind and deaf. After nearly five years of silence, Helen
was rescued by Anne Sullivan, who was able to teach her the significance of
Keller's many accomplishments include graduating cum laude from Radcliffe in 1904.
Before her death, Helen received six honorary doctoral degrees and published 13 books. In 1946, she helped organize the Deaf-Blind Branch of the American Foundation for the Blind.
In 1951, the city of Tuscumbia acquired Ivy Green and opened it to the public the next year. Ivy Green became a National Landmark in 1954 and has been visited by tourists from numerous foreign countries and all 50 states.
Keller's life has been recorded in an internationally acclaimed play and film, "The Miracle Worker." Keller died on June 1, 1968, and is buried beside her two companions, Anne Sullivan and Polly Thompson - her companion after Sullivan's death - in the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C.
Second O'Neal leaves mark
One of the leading political figures of the early 20th century was Emmett
O'Neal, son of Gov. Edward Asbury O'Neal. He was born in Florence and educated
locally. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1873.
In 1876, he returned to Florence and practiced law with his father. In 1880, he was chosen a member of the state Democratic Executive committee and in 1884, chosen a presidential elector.
In 1892, O'Neal campaigned statewide for Grover Cleveland. When Cleveland was elected president, O'Neal was appointed U. S. district attorney for North Alabama. He was chosen a delegate to write the 1901 Alabama Constitution, which is still in use today, and served as co-chairman of the Committee on Suffrage.
Campaigning as a progressive reformer, O'Neal lost his bid to become lieutenant in 1906.
In 1903, he campaigned throughout the West on behalf of William Jennings Bryan in his presidential campaign against William Howard Taft.
But the issue that thrust O'Neal to the forefront in Alabama was the battle over prohibition. Reform Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer favored a statewide liquor ban by constitutional amendment.
O'Neal called for local option laws on prohibition and organized a statewide convention to fight the proposed amendment. He debated all comers in a statewide campaign.
On Nov. 29, 1909, the amendment was soundly defeated and O'Neal became the hero of conservatives. Having once campaigned as a progressive reformer and losing, O'Neal now campaigned as a conservative who protected free choice. He attacked progressivism and called for a return to sound, reasonable, patriotic, business-like government. O'Neal won the election and was sworn in as Alabama's 35th governor.
Almost immediately, O'Neal introduced a program calling for "conservative reform."
The conservative-dominated Legislature passed into law local option on prohibition and on the use of commission forms of government. He pushed for libraries for rural schools, creation of the state Highway Commission, laws governing more safety in coal mines, more regulation of child labor, increased funding for public schools and state colleges, and creation of the state Banking Department. His proposals on tax reform and increased in income and property taxes were defeated.
O'Neal officially announced that "open season for killing Negroes closed when I became governor of Alabama." He was hailed by many as a statesman and political philosopher.
In 1910, the first Governor's Conference was held and O'Neal spoke for continued states' rights against federal encroachment. At the 1911 conference, O'Neal debated New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson on the merits of initiative and referendum.
On the national stage
Because of his eloquence and reason, he was invited to address the New York
City Chamber of Commerce. His address was titled, "Representative
Government and the Common Law."
In 1912, he was chairman of the Alabama delegation to the National Democratic Convention and on the 44th ballot, gave Alabama's votes to a victorious Woodrow Wilson. He later gave the welcoming speech when Wilson attended the Southern Commercial Congress in Mobile.
Back in Alabama, O'Neal became the target of the prohibition movement. When fraud was exposed in the convict-lease system and the Department of Agriculture, both were used against O'Neal. In 1914, the prohibitionists gained control of the state Legislature and O'Neal addressed a very hostile audience.
His speech before the Legislature is regarded as one of the greatest in state history. He called for new reforms, more taxation for public education and biannual sessions of the Legislature. Legislation passed into law included creation of high schools in each county, complete abolition of child labor, abolition of the convict-lease system, a workman's compensation law, and creation of the state Public Utilities Commission.
After retirement, O'Neal practiced law in Birmingham and served as a bankruptcy referee for nearly seven years. In 1920, he lost an election bid to the U. S. Senate to "Cotton Tom" Heflin.
O'Neal supported Henry Ford's bid to purchase the nitrate plants at Muscle Shoals and campaigned to encourage President Warren G. Harding and Congress to accept the bid. He was speaking in Augusta, Ga., when he suffered a stroke. Emmett O'Neal is buried in Florence City Cemetery near his father, Edward Asbury O'Neal.
Perhaps the most controversial personality to walk across the pages of
Florence's history was Thomas Sigismund Stribling. Born in Clifton, Tenn., on
March 4, 1881, he was the son of a Union soldier captured at the Hornet's Nest
during the Battle of Shiloh.
After the war, the senior Stribling opened a general store in Clifton and served as postmaster. Stribling's mother was a member of the Waite family from Gravelly Springs in Lauderdale County.
Young Thomas always dreamed of becoming a writer but his father refused to pay for his education unless he studied education, law or medicine.
Stribling moved to Florence, lived with an aunt and uncle, and attended the Normal College. After graduation, he attended the University of Alabama, obtaining a law degree in 1904. He returned to Florence and practiced law in the prestigious O'Neal firm but he soon became bored with the law and tried teaching.
After failing at teaching, Stribling moved to Nashville to pursue a writing career, becoming successful writing Sunday school and Bible school stories.
Stribling's first novel, "Birthright," was published in 1921 about life in a small Tennessee town. In 1926 came "Teeftallow" and "Bright Metal" in 1928, both about life in a small Wayne County, Tenn., town.
The late Nick Winn III, longtime University of North Alabama English professor, said Stribling was a gifted writer whose best work was about his beloved South. Dr. Randy Cross stated Stribling was controversial because he was the first Southern writer to expose small-town life. His greatest works are known as the Trilogy: "The Forge," "The Store" and "Unfinished Cathedral."
All are about Lauderdale County and Florence and caused quite a storm when published. "The Store" won Stribling the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1962, Stribling returned to Florence at the invitation of Winn, to speak to his freshman class at Florence State College. The class was studying "The Store."
He and his wife later moved to Florence and resided briefly on Poplar Street. T. S. Stribing died on July 8, 1965, and is buried in Clifton, Tenn., overlooking the Tennessee River.