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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



Diversified agriculture and a rising industrial base characterized the "New South" of the post-war period.

In Alabama, Birmingham was becoming a literal Mecca during the 1872-80s but recovery was coming slowly to the Shoals area. Many local people felt the major reason for the slow industrial growth was the useless Muscle Shoals Canal.

After the war there was a growing concern that without a useful canal, the region would not recover and develop agriculturally or industrially.

In 1868,the Army Corps of Engineers conducted channel work from Chickasaw Landing, also called Riverton, to Florence. William B. Gaw, Army Corps of Engineers, described the canal as follows: "At the present time it is simply a monument of misdirected energies and of a foolish expenditure of money."

In 1871,the federal government again became interested in building a canal around the shoals. It was thought the revival of industry around Chattanooga and the monopoly of the railroad affected this decision.

On March 3, 1871, Congress appropriated money for the construction of the canal.

Three canals needed


In 1872, Maj. Walter McFarland of the Corps of Engineers made a survey and called for the construction of three canals along the north bank of the river. One canal would be over the Elk River Shoals with a single lock, the original 1830s canal would be widened and repaired and a third canal would be constructed over the Little Mussel Shoals with three locks. Actual construction was to begin in 1875 and cost $100,000.

In 1877, Maj. W. R. King of the Corps of Engineers modified McFarland's report. King proposed to modify the original canal by constructing spur dams on creeks that emptied into the canal and reduced the number of locks from 17 to nine.

The old canal was widened to 70 feet and creeks flowing into the canal were dredged and spur dams constructed at the mouths of Bluewater, Six Mile and Second creeks.

But the most troublesome obstruction was Shoal Creek.

This obstacle was conquered by constructing an aqueduct 900 feet long and 60 feet wide.

Boats traveling in the aqueduct gave the appearance of being airborne. To aid the construction, a 14-mile railroad was built on the south levy of the canal. The small train carried materials and men and was used to tow boats through the canal.

On March 11, 1881, three armed and masked men robbed Alexander G. Smith, the federal paymaster.

Smith picked up the payroll in Florence and was on his way to the work camp at Bluewater Creek when three men took the payroll of $500 in gold, $4,500 in bills and coins and Smith's personal money totaling $221 and a watch.

Before leaving Smith, the outlaws retuned $21, his watch and overcoat.


James brothers implicated


The three were Frank and Jesse James and "Wild Bill" Ryan. Two weeks after the robbery, "Wild Bill" Ryan was arrested after a drunken brawl in Nashville.

The James brothers were living around Nashville incognito; Frank went by the alias B. J. Woodson, Jesse was J. D. Howard and both were known as respected farmers. After the arrest of Ryan, the James brothers left for Missouri where, on April 3, 1882, Jesse was shot and killed by Bob Ford, a James gang member.

Frank James later surrendered and stood trail in Huntsville on April 17, 1884, for the Muscle Shoals robbery. The trial ended on April 18 with James found not guilty.

In 1886, Lt. Col. J. W. Barlow replaced King as the chief engineer of the canal and Lt. Col. George Washington Goethals, former engineer for Sherman's army, came to the Shoals.

Goethals organized the canal workers into three shifts and personally supervised the night shift.

Goethals lived on Wood Avenue during his stay in Florence, leaving to become chief engineer for the Panama Canal project.


Shoals canal opens


The Shoals canal officially opened on Nov. 10, 1890, just in time to compete against the railroad rates.

Work had been completed on a 3 1/2 mile, two-lock canal over the Elk River Shoals and the original 1830s canal was widened and dredged.

The total cost was $3 million for the 15-year project.

Goethals took charge of a canal over the Colbert Shoals in 1893. The original survey called for two locks, but Goethals designed a single lock to lift an unprecedented 26 feet.

Although the canals were successful, they did not solve all the navigation problems.

Creeks continued to dump tons of silt and trash, resulting in the need for almost constant dredging.

Furthermore, the blasted rock bottom channel from Lock One to Elk River over Nance Reef was only 2 1/2 feet deep during low water.

To add to these problems, the channel over the Little Mussel Shoals was crooked and dangerous to navigate.

Single steamers could navigate the channel with little difficulty, but tugs pushing barges had severe problems.

One tug, The City of Chattanooga, sank twice pushing four coal barges.


Dams are considered


Because of almost constant problems, the cry from many in the valley was "dam the river," in support for a government survey calling for construction of three dams to solve navigation problems over the shoals.

In 1898, the Muscle Shoals Power Co. was organized by Dr. C. B. Ashe and J. R. Coleman of Sheffield. That same year, Rep. Joseph Wheeler introduced legislation allowing the Alabama group to construct and operate an electric power plant.

This was the first of many bills to permit development of the hydroelectric potential of the Shoals.

On March 3, 1899, President McKinley signed legislation allowing the Muscle Shoals Power Co. to construct a hydroelectric dam at Muscle Shoals.

Later that year a franchise was granted but vetoed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1900. That same year, John W. Worthington, a Birmingham visionary, advocated joint ownership and operation of a hydroelectric dam by private investors and the government. This proposal was not fully explored or developed at that time.

The post-war period was dubbed the Industrial Revolution, catching on quickly in the North. Fueled by the production of war materials, the national economy literally boomed.

Great fortunes were amassed by men like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Morgan and Gold.

Industrialism grows


Technological developments in railroad, steel, new sources of energy, and communication aided in making America the greatest industrial power of the 19th century. Mark Twain sarcastically named the period the Gilded Age.

Industrialism was slow in coming south due to political problems resulting from Reconstruction and economic problems that grew out of a lack of capital investment.

The South was prime ground for economic development and Northerners quickly acted after the Atlanta and Birmingham revivals of the 1870s and 80s.

The term "New South" became frequently used in association with this economic growth.

Local historian Richard Sheridan states that in 1870 Colbert County had 36 established factories and mills - 11 powered by steam and two by waterwheel - employing 132 people.

Lauderdale had 45 factories - two powered by steam and 21 by waterwheel - and employed 105 people. In 1871, the sons of James Martin rebuilt one of the Globe Mills on Cypress Creek and operated it until the 1890s.

In Colbert, Col. N. F. Cherry and W. H. Cherry of Savannah, Tenn., opened Mountain Mills Co. in Barton. Powered by a 25-horsepower steam engine, the mill turned out cotton yarn for the Philadelphia market.

In 1878, they employed 70 people and ran 2,200 spindles. By 1883, they increased to 8,600 spindles. In 1881, the Tuscumbia Cotton Mill was established, employing 20 workers and running 1,000 spindles.

The 1880s saw change on the horizon, spurred by the industrial and economic effects of the boom in Birmingham, then called "Pittsburgh of the South."


Sheffield is born


Capitalists began to look elsewhere for investments. This boom spirit led to the founding the "Victorian City," Sheffield, by the Sheffield Land, Iron and Coal Co., primarily financed by Capt. Alfred H. Moses of Montgomery and Col. Walter S. Gordon.

The first land sale began May 8, 1884, and in three days, 500 lots worth $350,000 had been sold.

According to the authors of "Sheffield, City on the Bluff," Sheffield was incorporated Feb. 17, 1875, and promoted as the ideal iron and steel center of North Alabama.

Promotions mentioned iron ore deposits in Franklin County and the use of barge traffic as a cheaper means of transportation.

By 1885, Sheffield had five blast furnaces in operation producing 170 tons daily. The iron was poured into pigs weighing roughly 150 pounds each.

In December 1886, the Sheffield Furnace Co. began operation. In March 1887, the furnace company was sold to Enoch Ensley, wealthy real estate investor originally from Memphis.

He eventually moved to Birmingham and operated furnaces in Ensley, Ala.

Ensley moved to Sheffield in 1884 and operated the furnace until his death in 1891. After Ensley's death, the Sloss-Sheffield Co. purchased the factory.


Florence industry returns


The Florence industrial boom has been well documented by William L. McDonald. The boom began in August 1886, with the founding of the Florence Land, Mining and Manufacturing Co.

The company purchased acreage in East Florence for future industrial sites. One of the first companies to build was the North Alabama Furnace, Foundry and Land Co. in April 1887.

The first factory founded was in October 1887, as the North Alabama Co. They produced 30,000 tons of pig iron annually. This company sold in 1893 to a Tennessee firm named Spathite Iron Co. In November 1895, they were controlled by the Louisville Banking Co. of Louisville, Ky. The company closed in 1901.

On March 18, 1887, William Basil Wood, son of Florence's first mayor, organized the W. B. Wood Furnace Co., later incorporated as the Florence Cotton and Iron Co.

Wood became the major promoter of the East Florence industrial development. Wood's Furnace Co. fell victim to the depression of 1892-94.

It was sold to the Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. in 1899 and operated later as the Philadelphia Furnace Co.

The Florence Stove and Manufacturing Co. relocated from Evansville, Ind., in 1888. The Martin family later purchased it in 1918 and it is in operation today as the Florence Foundry.


Cotton mills open


The cotton industry came to East Florence in a big way in January 1893, when the Mountain Mills Co. moved from Barton and was renamed the Cherry Cotton Mills.

Col. N. F. Cherry, Nial Elting and Charles M. Brandon were the owners.

The Mill operated into the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Elting, who came from New York, and R. L. Bliss organized the First National Bank of Florence.

Charles Brandon, a local resident, became a major supporter of public education in East Florence; Brandon School today bears his name.

The Ashcraft Cotton Mill was formed from the Florence Cotton Oil Co. in 1899. In 1927, the name was changed to the Florence Cotton Mill, which closed in the mid-1940s.


Wagon works established


The most successful wood products mill established in East Florence was the Florence Wagon Works.

The company was founded by Dr. A. D. Bellamy in Atlanta and moved locally to take advantage of the cheap river transportation and plentiful hardwood forests.

Jane Johnson Hamm recently compiled a history titled "Florence Wagon Company: Memories and More" that documents the life of the company.

The plant covered 15 acres on the canal and, at its peak, employed 175 people. The motto was "Nothing is too good for the Florence."

The company became the second-largest wagon maker in the nation, second to Studebaker. It used 2 million feet of local hardwood and produced from 10,000 to 15,000 wagons annually.

The most popular wagon was the "Florence Light Runner." The advent of the automobile forced the factory to move to Hickory, N. C., in 1941.

Another famous company in East Florence was established as the Tennessee Valley Fertilizer Co. by Lee Ashcraft. IMC operates on the original property today.


Railroad speeds development


One of the most important ingredients of industrialization was the railroad.

Before the war, the Tennessee Valley had three major lines, the Memphis and Charleston being the largest and most important.

After the war the company suffered continuous financial problems and was forced into foreclosure in February 1898. On July 1, 1898, it was absorbed and operated as Southern Railroad.

On Feb. 24, 1879, the Nashville and Florence Railroad was incorporated in Tennessee.

Eight years later, on Jan. 19, 1887, the Tennessee and Alabama Railroad was formed to connect Sheffield and Florence via the railroad bridge. No work was ever done and the company was consolidated with the Nashville and Florence Co. in May 1887., to form the Nashville, Florence and Sheffield Railroad.


Need for education seen


The Industrial Revolution caused many necessary by-products, one of the most important was the development of education.

In the early years after the war, a truly remarkable event occurred in Lauderdale County. T. B. Larimore opened Mars Hill Academy on Jan. 1, 1871, the first Bible training school in the South.

Theophilus Brown Larimore was born in Jefferson City, Tenn., on July 10, 1843. He entered Mossey Creek Baptist College at age 16. When the war began, he enlisted in the Confederate Army but was later captured and paroled to take care of family.

In 1866, he began his ministry and attended Franklin College in Franklin, Tenn. After graduation he married Ester Gresham in 1868 and set up housekeeping on her family's land along Cox Creek. After building his home, Larimore built and opened the academy and operated it for 17 years.

The school stressed frugality, thoroughness, promptness and Christian behavior. Tuition was $130 for a 24-week term; local students could attend without room and board for $42. In 1887, the academy was closed because of increasing debt and the growth of Larimore's evangelism career. Larimore died in March 1929, in Santa Ana, Calif.


University admits women


In 1872, Florence Wesleyan University found itself in financial difficulty and on Dec. 15, the Methodist Conference deeded the school to the state of Alabama. The school was renamed Florence Normal College; the first state-supported normal school south of the Ohio River.

William L. McDonald states that women were admitted in 1874, creating the first coeducational teacher-training school. Two women were added to the faculty in 1879. The first president of Florence Normal was Dr. S. P. Rice, who came to Florence when the school was moved from LaGrange in 1855.

Florence University was founded in 1884, during the industrial boom. Locally known as the Baptist university, it was on Seymour Street near the old stone water tower. For years the area around the school was known as University Heights.

One of the early leaders was Maj. Field of the Florence Land, Mining, and Manufacturing Co. Dr. J. B. Hawthorne, a leading Baptist from Atlanta, was selected as the first president.

According to the 1909 yearbook, "Varsity," the three-story building was erected at a cost of $119,000 and contained 140 rooms.

The same plans were later used to erect the main building at Judson college. Originally founded as a male school, it fell victim to a depressed economy and lay vacant until 1908, when it was reopened as Florence University for Women. The building was destroyed by fire in 1911.

Bailey springs University for Women was founded in 1893, with Dr. Henry A. Moody as president. James F. Sulzby in his book "Historic Alabama Hotels and Resorts," said free tuition was offered to 36 white females of Alabama between 14 and 24 years old. Charges for room, heat, lights, washing and servants were not to exceed $13.

The school was incorporated Dec. 13, 1894, but almost immediately it suffered financially because of the depression. There was only one known graduate from the school.

In February 1899, the Alabama Legislature exempted Bailey Springs University from taxation on condition that 36 scholarships are offered but continued financial difficulties caused the school to close in 1900.

The industrial development of the shoals pointed to a need to educate the children of mill workers.

Lindsay Kindergarten


In September 1898, the Florence Free Kindergarten Club was formed and the first school was established in the home of Mrs. R. Price, 714 North Wood Ave.

Maude Lindsey was hired to serve as both teacher and principal. Miss Maude, as she was known, was born in Tuscumbia May 13, 1874, the daughter of Gov. Robert Burns Lindsey.

Her teaching career began in a school established by Jeanne Cooper of Tuscumbia. Miss Maude dedicated her life to the care and education of working-class children.

She was the classic Shoals citizen; born in Tuscumbia, taught in Florence, and lived in Sheffield. Miss Maude led the school until her death on May 30, 1941. The school was named in her honor June 10, 1941.

The school bears the distinction of being the first free kindergarten in Alabama and is still in operation. Maude Lindsey wrote at least 18 books of poems and children's stories.

A partial listing includes "Mother Stories" (1899), "More Mother Stories" (1905), "Songs of Alabama" (1913), "Little Missy" (1922), "The Storyland Tree" (1933) and "Fun on Children's Street" (1941).

During Miss Maude's summer vacations she taught at the Elizabeth Peabody Settlement House in Boston for a number of years and later became a staff member at New York University, teaching adult classes in the art of story telling.


Public schools flourish


With the Industrial boom of the 1880s, there began to be increased interest in public education. Sheffield, "the new Birmingham," had in place a private academy established in 1885, and started its first public school in September 1888. The Alabama Avenue School was completed in 1892.

Florence, nicknamed "Philadelphia of the South," also saw the need for public education and on June 1, 1891, the city council created the City Board of Education. James W. Morgan Jr., a Florence native, was hired as the first superintendent. Former Gov. Patton donated one acre on College and Chestnut streets and a new brick building was erected in 1890. The school board fittingly named it Patton School.

On Aug. 3, 1891, the Board of Education hired Young A. Wallace as principal of the Colored Public Free School and accepted a petition from the citizens of North Florence asking for a school. The school was opened in a rented building on North Wood Avenue and named the Fifth Ward School, later known as Gilbert School.

In June 1891, the school board hired a teacher for a school in a rented building on East Sweetwater Avenue named Sixth Ward School. Later it became Brandon School.

In the summer and fall of 1878, 20,000 died across the South from a yellow fever epidemic. The first deaths in Memphis occurred on Aug. 13, 1878. Many fled east to escape and three Memphis residents died in Tuscumbia on Sept. 6.

Immediately Florence, Leighton and Tuscumbia were quarantined. The epidemic ended in October, after the first frost.

Fifty died in Florence, 33 in Tuscumbia, five in Decatur, four in Town Creek, two in Courtland, and one in Leighton.


Local citizens have impact


A number of noteworthy local individuals were born or became important during the post-war industrial period.

William Christopher Handy was born in Florence on Nov. 16, 1873, and went on to distinguish himself as "The Father of the Blues."

Perhaps the best known native was Helen Keller, born at Ivy Green plantation in Tuscumbia on June 26, 1880. Stricken with a serious illness as a young child, she was left deaf and blind. She went on to become an internationally known advocate for people with disabilities and has been called "The First Lady of Courage."

Although Edward Asbury O'Neal was born on Sept. 20, 1818, he was elected 26th governor of Alabama in 1882 and re-elected in '84.

O'Neal was born in Madison County. His father died when Edward was only 4 years old. He and his brother were educated by their mother. Edward attended LaGrange College and graduated with "highest honors" in 1836. After studying law in Huntsville, he was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1840 and moved to Florence to practice. In 1841, O'Neal became solicitor of the Fourth Circuit and held the office for four years.

He lost an attempt to win a seat in the 31st Congress in 1848. A strong believer in states' rights, O'Neal became an outspoken leader in the secession movement. He helped organize a company of infantry, was elected captain, and shipped out to join Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. In Virginia, he was promoted to major in the 9th Alabama Infantry. On Oct. 21, 1861, he was promoted to Lieutenant colonel and in March 1861, he became colonel in the 26th Alabama Infantry.

O'Neal and the 26th Alabama participated in the battles of Yorktown, Williamsburg, Seven Pines, Boonesboro and Chancellorsville. O'Neal was wounded at Seven Pines, Boonesboro and Chancellorsville.

In early 1863, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general but President Jefferson Davis canceled the promotion.

O'Neal commanded a division under General R. E. Rodes at the fateful Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. After Gettysburg, O'Neal and the 26th Alabama were sent home to reorganize and later transferred to the Army of Tennessee. After the Battle of Atlanta, O'Neal was relieved by Gen. John Bell Hood, commander of the Army of Tennessee.

He returned to Florence, served on detached leave and was assigned to arrest deserters from the Army of Tennessee. During Reconstruction, he worked to restore "Bourbon" Democratic control in Alabama. In 1875, O'Neal was elected to the constitutional convention and served as chairman of the education Committee.

During O'Neal's two terms as governor, normal schools were opened in Jacksonville and Livingston, the State Department of Agriculture was established, the Office of Examiner of Accounts was created and reforms were made to the convict-lease system

O'Neal was praised for his statesmanship, wisdom and sensible leadership. He died in Florence on Nov. 7, 1890, and is buried in the Florence Cemetery.


'Fighting Joe'


The most important political leader to affect the shoals area was not born in Alabama but was readily adopted.

Joseph Wheeler was born in Augusta, Ga., on Sept. 10, 1836, and raised in New York. After graduating from West Point in 1859, Wheeler served on a post in the New Mexico Territory. Following an incident where Wheeler defended the wife of his commanding officer from Indians, he earned the nickname, "Fighting Joe."

When Georgia seceded, Wheeler resigned from the U. S. Army, received a commission as lieutenant in the Confederacy, and was assigned to fortify Gulf Coast forts around Pensacola, Fla., under the command of Braxton Bragg.

In July 1862, Wheeler was promoted to major general and cavalry commander of the Army of Tennessee. Wheeler had earned a reputation as a daring cavalry commander and was asked, after Lee surrendered Richmond, to escort President Jefferson Davis and his party to safety over the Mississippi River. Before Davis and Wheeler could rendezvous, both were captured by remnants of Wilson's Union Cavalry. Both Wheeler and Davis were confined to Fort Delaware Prison from May to June 1865.

On Feb. 6, 1866, Wheeler married Daniella Jones Sherrod at her father's plantation, Pond Springs, in Lawrence County and moved to New Orleans to work in a family business. In 1870, he returned to Lawrence County to manage the Pond Springs Plantation.


Wheeler in congress


In addition to running the family estate, Wheeler read law, passed the bar and practiced with his brother-in-law in Courtland. In 1879, Wheeler aligned himself with the conservative "Bourbon" Democrats and ran for the 6th congressional District seat in the House of Representatives against Republican incumbent William M. Lowe of Huntsville.

Wheeler won a controversial election in November and was sworn in as a member of the 47th Congress in December 1880. On May 17, 1881, the House Committee on Elections ruled that Wheeler was holding office illegally and should be ousted. Before the entire House, Wheeler defended his election but was unseated by a Republican majority in June. In 1884, Wheeler was elected to the House and would hold the seat for 15 years.

Constantly a proponent of imperialism, Wheeler proposed U. S. intervention in Cuba during the late 1890s. On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor and Wheeler, age 61, volunteered for active military service.

On April 26 1898, Wheeler was commissioned major general in the U. S. Volunteers, one of four ex-Confederate generals to serve in the Spanish-American War (Fitzhugh Lee, Tom Rosser and Cal Butler were the others.).

After the war, Wheeler was selected one of three officers to interview the Spanish commander and seek surrender and later was selected to negotiate the surrender.

After the war, Wheeler returned to Congress but on June 20, 1899, President McKinley ordered Wheeler to war in the Philippines. On his return to the United States, Wheeler was commissioned brigadier general in the U. S. Army. In the fall of 1900, he retired from the military and Congress.

While visiting his sister in Brooklyn, N. Y., General Wheeler died on Jan. 25, 1906. Funeral services were held in New York City and a special train carried his body to Washington, D. C., where he lay in state at St. John's Episcopal church.

Wheeler was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. John P. Dyer, in his book "From Shiloh to San Juan,' said no Southerner did more to heal the wounds of the Civil War than Wheeler and during his tenure in the House of Representatives he gained nearly $4 million for Army Corps of Engineers surveys of the Muscle Shoals.


History of the Shoals, Page 7: A New Century



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