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History of the Shoals by Harry E. Wallace

(as published in the TimesDaily February 25, 1999)

Presented here by permission of the TimesDaily and the author



The antebellum period in American history is described as the time before the Civil War. The early decades of the 19th century saw the birth of the transportation revolution in the form of the steamboat by Robert Fulton, the railroad by Peter Cooper and the building of the Erie Canal.

Another feature of the antebellum period was the reform movements spawned during and after Andrew Jackson's presidency from 1828 to 1840.

Great strides were made in public education, the education for women, the building of colleges, Temperance, the movement to abolish slavery and better treatment for the insane. Locally the most productive years of the antebellum period economically, politically and socially were from the 1830s to 1860.


Transportation hardships


Both Florence and Tuscumbia were greatly affected by transportation hardships created by the Mussel shoals. These rapids and falls stretched from Brown's Island west of Decatur to Florence, a distance of almost 40 miles with a drop of 3 1/2 feet per mile. The shoals consisted of three distinct falls and rapids. In descending order they were the Elk River shoals, the Big Mussel and the Little Mussel.

The success of the Erie Canal and its arteries no doubt encouraged a local desire to build a canal over the shoals. Capt. Will Tell Poussin and Ferdinand Sannoner conducted the first survey in 1828. An additional survey was done in 1830 by Lt. Colonel James Kearney. The late Nick Winn in his book on the Mussel Shoals Canal wrote that the estimated cost ranged from $1,388,102 for a canal 60 feet wide to $1,434,523 for a 70-foot canal.

At this time of states' rights the federal government did not spend money for local projects. Quickly the influence of men like John Coffee was seen when the U. S. government deeded to the state of Alabama 400,000 acres of federal lands. The proceeds from the sale of this land were to be used for the construction of the canal.

Construction began in 1831 on a 14-mile canal over the Big Mussel Shoals. The canal was completed and opened in 1836 at a cost of $644.594.71. According to Winn's book, the canal soon proved a failure in low-water seasons because boats could not enter from the east over the Elk River Shoals or from the west over the Little Mussel Shoals.

Additional problems resulted from the existence of 17 locks that only lifted five feet. The locks were 120 feet long and 32 feet wide. The lock gates were wooden and quickly warped or rotted. Creeks that emptied tons of silt and trash into the canal during floods caused other problems. Requests for additional federal funding fro construction over the Elk River and Little Mussel Shoals were denied and the canal was abandoned in 1838.

Spring Creek landing


The town of Tuscumbia needed easier access to the Tennessee River but because of its location, was virtually cut off. In 1824 construction began on a landing at the mouth of Spring Creek where supplies from steamers and keelboats were hauled by freight wagons to the town.

On Jan. 16, 1830, the Tuscumbia Railroad Company was chartered to offer a more efficient method of transportation. David Deshler was hired as the supervising engineer. This was the first railroad built west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Construction began on June 5, 1831, and the 2.1-mile line was completed on June 12, 1832, at a cost of about $5,000 per mile.

Local historian Richard Sheridan said the terminal building, completed in 1832 on the river, was 75 feet long and 60 feet wide.

The three-story building was constructed of local stone at the base with the upper two levels brick. The completed building cost about $7,000 and was used extensively for the shipment of cotton and supplies from south of the river.

Sheridan said that in December 1835, the landing was used to receive and ship 511 Creek Indians west to the designated Indian Territory and in 1837, a number of Cherokees, under the leadership of Major Ridge and his son, John Ridge, left the landing on the "Trail of Tears" west. An additional 300 departed in April 1838 and nearly 800 arrived in June 1838 by train.


Cotton sparks development


In the early 1830s, Alabama was becoming the largest producer of cotton and the Mussel Shoals continued to be a obstacle to cotton shipping.

Problems with the Mussel Shoals Canal and demands from the planters for a more efficient method of shipping were the impetus for the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad Company, incorporated in October 1831 and chartered in January 1832.

By March 1832, more than $300,000 in stock had been sold and construction began on the first stretch from Tuscumbia to Leighton. The finished 43.1-mile railroad was in operation by Dec. 15, 1834. The first cars were pulled by animal power while the first locomotive was being shipped from Liverpool, England.

Speed and efficiency improved greatly after the arrival of the steam locomotive but a shortage of freight cars slowed traffic during peak shipment periods.

Problems existed in breakdowns of equipment and wear and tear on the iron bar track laid on wood stringers. By August 1836, the TCD Railroad Company had invested $428,891.71 and received a 5 percent return on capital stock.

The dreams of the founders of both the canal and railroad were soon dashed by the Panic of 1837. In addition to the canal's weaknesses, the panic resulted in decreased river traffic and forced the TCD Railroad Company into bankruptcy.

The Panic of 1837 was a direct result of Andrew Jackson's veto of the re-charter of the National Bank in 1832 and his personal and political warfare against Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. The long-reaching effects spelled doom for both the canal and railroad.

LaGrange College founded


One of the greatest single events of the antebellum period was the founding of LaGrange College, the first college in Alabama.

The history of LaGrange goes back to the early 1820s when wealthy families began living on Lawrence Hill during the long summer months. In 1824, the LaFayette Academy was established but ran into financial troubles by 1826.

In November 1826, the Methodist Episcopal church through the Tennessee Conference expressed interest in establishing a college in the southwest.

Representatives from LaGrange offered the conference money and land to build at LaGrange. The doors officially opened Jan. 11, 1830, and the school was chartered by the state on Jan. 19, 1830.

The Rev. Robert Paine, professor of moral science and letters, was chosen to be the first president. The first faculty consisted of William Hudson of Yale, professor of mathematics and modern languages, and Edward Sims as professor of ancient languages.

Harry V. Barnard stated in his article that the first term began in July and ended in late November and the second term began in late January and ended in late June. A religious atmosphere was encouraged without classes in theology being offered. The curriculum was "purely literary and scientific."

To encourage scholarship two literary societies, Lafayette and Dialectical, were founded and weekly debates were organized and became big events.

David Daniell, in an article on LaGrange, stated that topics debated included slavery, the annexation of Texas and whether a female mind was as capable of improvement as a male's. The decision on the latter topic was rendered in the negative.


Extracurricular activities


To discourage immoral behavior the Moral Association was founded but failed to prevent brawling and drunken behavior in nearby bars. To help combat boredom, Greek fraternities were organized and activities such as bowling, swimming and searching the woods for walking sticks with the young ladies from nearby LaGrange Female Academy became popular.

The curriculum included math, modern languages, ancient languages, moral science, geography, mineralogy and letters. Admission was rigorous. Applicants had to translate from four books of "Ceasar's Gallic Wars," six books of Virgil's "Aeneid," Jacob's or Felton's "Greek Reader," and one of Xenophon's Anabaisi.

Graduates of LaGrange became leading attorneys, doctors and Methodist clergy. Two well-known graduates were Edward Asbury O'Neal and Jeremiah Clemmons, both of Madison County. O'Neal, a resident of Lauderdale County, would become governor and Clemmons wrote Alabama's first Civil War novel.

Almost from the start, LaGrange faced financial problems. During the Panic of 1837, Paine and faculty members returned large portions of their salaries to keep the school open.

Pain left LaGrange in 1847 to assume other duties and was replaced by Dr. Edward Wadsworth. During Paine's presidency, 1830 to 1847, the enrollment had grown from 70 to 139. Wadsworth's term ended in 1852 as the school faced declining enrollment, partly due to a smallpox epidemic in 1850.

Dr. James Hardy, Wadsworth's replacement died in 1853. The fourth president was Dr. Richard Rivers who saw enrollment rise to 230 by 1855. Despite the increase in enrollment, debts continued to haunt the school.


School moves to Florence


A delegation from Florence approached the leadership of the Methodist conference and offered to build a new school, help raise a large endowment and assist in the recruitment of students, if the school was moved to Florence. In 1855, most of the students and faculty moved. Local citizens of Florence pledged $21,000 and the city pledged $9,000 for construction of the new school.

Local contractor Zebulon Pike Morrison was hired to construct Wesleyan Hall. The state of Alabama issued a charter in 1855 but refused to allow the name to be moved in deference to opposition from students and supporters of LaGrange.

The new name selected was Florence Wesleyan University. Historian William L. McDonald has written extensively about LaGrange and the move to Florence and has stated that hard feelings resulted from the move. Leaders from Franklin County saw the move as a theft of their school but Florentines saw it as an excellent opportunity to pay off the school's debts and improve educational opportunities in Florence.

LaGrange struggled to continue but in 1858, it was converted into the LaGrange Military Academy. On April 28, 1863, Col. Florence Cornyn's "Destroying Angels" of the 10th Missouri and 7th Kansas Cavalry burned the school and the nearby female Lafayette Academy.


Education for women


One phase of the antebellum period often overlooked was that of female education. In the early 1820s reform educator Emma Willard founded Troy Seminary in New York, marking the beginning of better education for women. In 1831 Mary Lyon founded Mt. Holoke in South Hadley, Mass., the first college for women.

During the 1830s, Adventure Schools stressing academics and the arts were founded. Dr. Nicholas and Caroline Hentz formed one such school in Florence. The Hentz family arrived in Waterloo on July 3, 1834, from Cincinnati Ohio. They would reside in Florence for nearly 9 1/2 years and operated Locust Dell Academy, one of the more successful Adventure Schools.

Leatrice Timmons, former English teacher at the University of North Alabama, conducted in-depth research on Caroline Hentz and the school. Timmons said the Hentzes purchased 12 acres from the O'Neal family and created a female boarding school that eventually attracted as many as 100 students, many of whom were local students in the day school.

Nicholas Hentz also operated a silkworm industry while in Florence, selling the worms and mulberry trees. Timmons stated that Hentz apparently made some money but sold out before the bubble burst.

In 1842, the Hentzes sold to Edward Asbury O'Neal and moved to Tuscaloosa where Nicholas Hentz taught at the University of Alabama. In 1848, the Hentzes moved to Columbus, Ga., where Hentz suffered a nervous breakdown in 1849.

Caroline Hentz began to write to help support her family. She wrote "A Southern Planter Takes a Wife" to answer Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Although Hentz's book only sold 100,000 copies, Timmons called her Alabama's first best-selling novelist. Caroline Hentz died in Marianna, Fla., in 1856 and is buried beside her husband.

Area Prospers in 1850s


Dr. Kenneth Johnson, retired professor of history at UNA, has written that the 1850s was the most prosperous pre-war decade. Johnson stated that two of the most prominent buildings, Wesleyan Hall and Courtview, the home of George Washington Foster, were constructed during this time.

The Florence Bridge was built in 1840 but was damaged by a storm and reopened in 1853. McDonald has written that the bridge was again damaged by a tornado in 1854 and not repaired for public use until 1860.

Other evidence of a prosperous period included a telegraph line and two newspapers in Florence, Florence Gazette and American Democrat.

The 1850s was also a period of growth educationally. Alabama established the first system of free public education but did not properly fund the system. The only southern states with public schools before the war were North Carolina and Kentucky.


Florence academies established


Another major achievement in education was the founding of the Florence Male and Female Academy in the early 1850s. Both schools were private and charged high tuition. After suffering financial problems, the Female Academy was transferred to the Presbyterian Synod of Nashville in November 1854. The school was chartered by the state in 1855 and opened to the public as the Florence Female Synodical College. By 1857, the school had 82 students and was financially sound.


Doris Kelso, in her history of the First Presbyterian Church of Florence said the Rev. Dr. W. H. Mitchell was president of the school from 1856 to his death in 1872. Mitchell was born in Ireland, came to America around 1840 and received his doctorate in divinity from Princeton.


Former Gov. Robert M. Patton assumed the presidency in 1872 and served until 1873. The school was closed in 1893 and leased to the Rev. A. H. Todd, who operated a private school until 1897.

Johnson said the 1850s was also a period of great commercial and industrial advancement.


New transportation options


A wharf was established on the river to accommodate steamers, rafts and keelboats. In 1853, the Florence and Nashville Railroad Company was organized and a Plank Road Company began to build a road from Florence to Rogersville and from there to Lawrenceburg, Tenn.

Not surprisingly, the lumber used rotted and the enterprise failed.

Industry in the antebellum south is often overlooked by the image of cotton plantations. Simply put, the shoals had a solid industrial base before the war.

Florence was labeled as the textile-manufacturing center of the old south. The textile industry was a natural outgrowth of the production of cotton. There were 160 cotton mills in the south by 1860. Sixteen of those mills were in Alabama with a capital investment of $1.3 million.

The first cotton mill in Lauderdale was established around 1820 but expansion was slow because of the plantation expansion in Alabama.

Ironically, the most important shot-in-the-arm for local industry was the Panic of 1837. During the panic, cotton production declined and many planters were forced to diversify part of their capital.

Mills open on Cypress Creek


The major mills were established locally from 1836 to 1842. Cypress Creek in Lauderdale saw the development of the Kernachan Cotton Mill and the Skipworth Mill. In 1839, James Martin and Levi Cassity purchased the Skipworth Mill and renamed it the Globe factory, which many local people referred to as the Cypress Mill.

After a devastating fire, which occurred in either 1843 or 1844, the mill was rebuilt under new management. Principals were Martin, Samuel Weakley and A. D. Coffee.

By 1850, the mill was operating 46 looms and 1,600 spindles and producing 80,000 yards of cloth weekly. The stockholders earned 50 percent on their investments in 1850.

By 1858, $500,000 was invested in three mills. They were operating 3,000 spindles, employed over 300 people and purchased 4,000 bales of local cotton annually. Within two years the Globe Mills wee the largest in Alabama, operating 8,000 spindles and 140 looms with annual production value exceeding $250,000.

Robert Perry in his book on antebellum industry, called James Martin an industrial visionary.

In 1845, the Lauderdale factory was built by Turner S. Foster on Shoal Creek near the Military road. In the 1850s, the mill operated 34 looms, 1,150 spindles, employed 66 people and consumed 15 bales of cotton weekly. Before the war the mill was owned by Kennedy, Baugh, and Leftwich and operated 2,200 spindles, 70 looms, employed 125 people and had an annual production of nearly $90,000.


Industry diversifies


Other industries in Lauderdale were the Milner and Kennedy Wool Factory founded in 1830. Known later a Milner, Wood and Wrenn Company, they produced cloth for Confederate uniforms and slave cloth for plantation use.

A foundry was established on Anderson Creek that produced agricultural implements and casings.

In 1831, Wright and Rice established a machine shop on Cox Creek near the present site of Mars Hill Church. They produced rotary saws, steam engines, cotton gins and castings. This factory produced cannon and shot during the war.

In the 1850s there were 15 sawmills, 25 gristmills and numerous tanyards scattered throughout Lauderdale County.

Historian Richard Sheridan has written that Alabama's first blast furnace was built on Cedar Creek in Franklin in 1818 by Joseph Heslip. In 1833, Samuel Vanlier, Heslip's nephew, operated the Wayne Iron Works just over the Tennessee sate line. The Tuscumbia Shops and Foundry was founded in 1845 to supply agricultural implements.


Plantation life romanticized


The most romanticized aspect of the antebellum period is plantation life. Visions of vast fields of cotton, happy singing slaves, large manor houses, beautiful women and lavish social events have been viewed by millions in movies such as "Gone With The Wind" and television mini-series such as "Beulah Land," "North and south" and "The Blue and Gray."

Perhaps the truth is too boring or too plain for many novelists or movie producers. For the vast majority of those who lived on local plantations, life was filled with hard work and social events were few and far between.

The best study of plantation life in Lauderdale County was conducted by Mary Jane McDaniel of the UNA History Department.

McDaniel used four criteria for her study. To qualify as a large plantation, the owner had to have at least 50 slaves, have sufficient amounts of tillable land, produce at least one cash crop and have a sizable capital investment.

Using these criteria, McDaniel identified 23 large plantations in Lauderdale County. Most were in the Reserve or Bend of the River west of Florence.

By 1860, there were 435,080 slaves in Alabama, with 35 percent owned by large planters. The largest slaveholder in Alabama was William Goulden whose plantation was in the Black Belt. The average plantation in Alabama had 85 slaves while the 23 in Lauderdale averaged 110 each.

Largest local plantations


The largest slaveholder in Lauderdale was John Peters, who owned 340, and the largest in Franklin was Abraham Ricks, who owned about 300. Large plantations in Lauderdale ranged from a low of 1,250 acres owned by Lawrence Thompson to 12,000 acres owned by Henry D. Smith.

The average plantation was 3,000 acres in 1860. The most commonly produced commercial crop was cotton.

But McDaniel also found that Lauderdale plantations produced large quantities of corn and butter.

Of the total, 23 produced wheat, wool, potatoes, sweet potatoes and hay. Over half produced peas, beans and rye. Peters was the largest producer of cotton, bringing in 681 bales in 1859.

Other large planters of Lauderdale in 1860 were George Armistead, Nathan Boddie, Janet Collier, J. M. Cunningham, George W. Foster, James L. Holland, John M. Hood, Andrew J. Hutchings, Jane Irions, Sarah Jackson, Robert T. Kernachan Sr., William H. Key, Robert M. Patton, Sidney Posey, Neal Rowell, John Simpson, Joseph Thompson's estate, Robert H. Watkins, John S. Wilson and Matthew Wilson.

No plantation study has yet been done for Franklin County but the names of planters include: Henry King, John Rand, Edward B. Delony, Col. James Fennel, Thomas Lyle, Drury Vinson, Elisha Madding, Richard Preuit, Isaac Winston, Peter Fontaine Armistead, William Winston, A. S. Christian, Col. William M. Jackson, Bernard McKiernan, Armstead Barton, William Dixon, Henry Hyde, William Lucas, Winter Payne, Thomas Winston, John Thompkins, John W. Rutland, Isaac Lane, David Goodloe, James Barton, Captain Monoah Hampton, William A. King, Robert King, George Caroll, F. W. Bynum and John G. Shine.


Vacation Spots and Spas


Antebellum resorts and spas offered wealthy individuals and families relaxation, social events and advertised medical cures. Resorts available for local citizens included Blount Springs, Good Springs north of Russellville, Iuka Springs, and the best known, Bailey Springs.

Jonathan Bailey came to Lauderdale County around 1809. He originally purchased about 200 acres and later purchased 40 acres, which included the springs, from John Hough. James F. Sulzby, who published "Historic Alabama Hotels and Resorts," said Bailey operated his resort until his death in October 1857.

The resort attracted guests from throughout the Southeast and even into the Ohio Valley. By the 1840s the fame of the resort spread and Bailey constructed a large hotel and large ballroom. Water was even bottled and sent all over the South and East. Guests would arrive at the shoals by steamboat, train or by stagecoach.

Sulzby wrote that after Bailey's death the resort was sold to A. G. Ellis. Ellis' daughter Virginia married Dr. Henry a. Moody, who practiced at Bailey Springs until 1888. The resort never regained its antebellum status after the Civil War.

The civil War brought great destruction to the Counties of the Tennessee Valley. Almost all transportation, communication and industry were destroyed. Education facilities ceased to operate and the "cotton kingdom" was virtually destroyed. Post-war recovery would be long and painful.


History of the Shoals, Page 4: The Civil War

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