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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 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 construction site.

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 '24.

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 words.

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.

Controversial author


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.

A conspicuous feature in Judge Wood’s busy life has been his active interest in public improvements, and long before the war, his friends inform us, he was forming combinations for railroad enterprises and manufacturing industries. It is not surprising, therefore that in the rejuvenation of the south he should have taken an active part. Hence we find him ten years ago, or more, calling public meetings of the citizens of Florence whose welfare has always been nearest his heart, to communicate to them the new spirit then first awakening. His efforts were presistent [sic] and effective, and the new life now pervading the community is directly traceable to the seed he had sown, which has resulted in a train of circumstances that have placed Florence in the lead of the growing cities of the south. His first effective work in this direction was the organization of the Land, Mining and Manufacturing Company, whose work gave Florence a commanding position before the county and accomplished great things for the city. Subsequently, in connection with Maj. Field and others, Judge Wood organized the railroad & Improvement Company, of which he became the president. The great work of this company is too fresh in the minds of our people to need mention here.

In "Northern Alabama" a handsomely illustrated volume, published in 1888,we find the following article concerning Judge Wood. The article, though brief, speaks volumes of the unwearied labors of this distinguished gentleman, and proves how justly the title of "Father of Florence" has been earned by him:

"William Basil Wood, president of the Florence Land Mining & Manufacturing, of the W.B. Wood Furnace Company, of the Charcoal and Chemical Company, of the Florence, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery Railroad Company, of the Florence & Chicago Railroad Company, and secretary of the Alabama Improvement Company, was born at Nashville, Tenn., October, 31, 1820. His parents were Alexander H. and Mary E. (Evans) Wood – his father a native of Virginia, his mother of England.

"Wm. B. Wood’s paternal grandfather was secretary to Alexander Hamilton, and had commanded troops in the Colonial army. His father was an officer in the war of 1812. Upon his mother’s side, his grandfather Evans was a colonel in the British army, but after the declaration of peace he chose to return to this side of the water and cast his lot with the ‘Rebels.’

"The subject of this sketch was educated at LaGrange College, Franklin county; read law under Judge Coleman (afterward of the supreme bench); was admitted to the bar at Florence in 1842; began the practice of law at once, and in 1844 was elected judge of Lauderdale county. While in the army in 1862 he was elected judge of the circuit court, and in 1866 was re-elected and occupied the bench until 1880, except during the reconstruction period. In August 1861, he was elected colonel of the sixteenth Alabama Infantry, in fact, he raised that regiment and organized it at Courtland, became its colonel and commanded it for nearly two years.

"In 1863 he was transferred to the army of Northern Virginia, appointed by Mr. Davis, president judge of the military court of the first army corps, and was there to the close of the war. As colonel, he participated in the battle of Fishing Creek, Ky., where Zollicoffer was killed. He was also at Triune, Tenn., Murfreesboro, and his regiment was at Shiloh and all the battles of the Army of Tennessee. At the close of the war he returned to Florence, and as we have before seen presided over the circuit court of his district. Prior to the war Mr. Wood, in addition to his professional duties, was largely interested in various other enterprises. He was engaged in the manufacture of woolens; was interested in the steamboat business; was principal owner and controlled a line of steamers which plied the Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He was in the steamboat business after the war. His company built the ‘Rapidan’ in 1868, and the ‘Florence Lee’ in 1870. He also owned the ‘James R.’, built the ‘Sallie Wood’ and the ‘William Dickinson,’ and retired fully from steamboat business not until 1876. In 1882, he began turning his attention to railroads. He was one of the organizers of the Indiana, Alabama & Texas railway, now completed between Clarksville, Tenn., and Princeton, Ky., and was its vice-president. He was also one of the organizers of the Birmingham & Tennessee railroad, now known as the Sheffield & Birmingham. He organized the Alabama & Tennessee railroad and sold it to the Nashville, Florence & Sheffield Company. November 29, 1886, as one of the organizers of the Florence Land Mining and Manufacturing Company, he was made president, and re-elected in November, 1888.

"Judge Wood is a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a Master Mason, R. A., and Knight Templar, and in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was grand master of the state two years (1869 –70).

"He originated the idea and raised the subscription for the Florence Wesleyan University; (now the State Normal college); gave liberally to it himself and was for some years president of its board of trustees. Its endowment being exhausted at the end of the war, he succeeded in having it sold to the state and it was converted into the State Normal School, with which Judge Wood has been sine officially identified.

"Away back in 1844 he organized the Methodist Episcopal Sunday school, to which he has since given particular attention and devoted much time and money. That he has since its organization been its superintendent, teacher and regular attendant, he says he ‘regards as the proudest achievement of his life.’ He has been steward and trustee in his church since 1846. He organized the Sunday school two years before he became a member of the church.

"He was married April 21, 1843, to Sarah B. Leftwich, daughter of Major Leftwich of Virginia."

On an inside page of the same paper is the following:


"The life-like engraving of Hon. W. B. Wood, which we present today, does credit to our artist and gives to our patrons a view of one of the best and noblest gentlemen the state has ever produced. The Times is pleased to announce that Judge Wood’s health is improving and that his physicians speak in a very encouraging manner, of his condition."



Hon. W. B. Wood is Dead.

Florence Loses a Citizen Whose Loss Cannot be Repaired.


Judge William Basil Wood is dead. On Friday evening last at 7:30 o’clock the dread messenger came, and the spirit of Florence’s leading citizen took its flight to the realms of the unknown.


Immediately after having eaten supper, and whilst sitting before the fire, the action of the heart ceased, the beloved citizen fell forward on his face, and before he could be placed on his bed, the end came. At the time, he was talking to his nephew, Mr. Sam Rice, and was in his usual good spirits.


Thus has passed away a great and good man, one whose active life constitutes a large part of the local history of his time. A born leader of men, with a broad and vigorous mind, of unconquerable perseverance and boundless energy, he naturally arose to the leadership of any movement of public spirit among his people, and his friends recall the fact that he originated and organized nearly every enterprise which resulted in the great material development seen on every hand in our beautiful city. In peace and in war, he ever acted a prominent part, and as a soldier, as a pure and upright and just judge, as a public spirited citizen, and in the holier circles of the church, in society and the family, he built a character that will linger affectionately in the memory of our people for generations.


We have neither the time nor the data, at present, to do justice to the character and services of Judge Wood. By other hands these will be done ample justice, and we can only here record our high regard for the distinguished citizen who is no more, and point to his example as a model for our younger generation.


On Sunday afternoon, with the unostentatious and impressive service of the Methodist church, the remains were interred in the Florence cemetery, Rev. G. W. Briggs, assisted by Rev. Dr. Heard, conducting the ceremony. The large auditorium of the Methodist church was filled with the relatives and friends of the deceased, and the procession to he grave was one of the largest that ever escorted a departed citizen to that city of the dead. The pall-bearers were Judge H. C. Jones, Henry W. Sample, Judge Geo. P. Keys, Dr. J. C. Conner, Geo. W. Karsner, E. S. Gregory, T. B. Ingram, S. D. Rice, George P. Jones, Andrew Brown, S. C. Brown and Hon. R. T. Simpson.


To the stricken wife and other relatives our whole people extend expressions of sincere sympathy and condolence."


Source: The Florence Times, Saturday, April 11th, 1891.

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