The History of the City of Muscle Shoals
Since the incorporation of Muscle Shoals in 1923, this city has become known as the fastest growing city in northwest Alabama with a population of over 17,000. Located in the eastern portion of Colbert County, Muscle Shoals is also known as “The Shoals,” along with the cities of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence. The city of Muscle Shoals is approximately 30 miles south of Tennessee and approximately 20 miles east of Mississippi. The rapidly developing city covers 15 square miles and still has cotton fields within the city limits. Muscle Shoals also touches the banks of the Tennessee River. The Tennessee River is a source of the rich history of Muscle Shoals.
Indians first inhabited the lands bordered by the Tennessee River that we call the Shoals area today. No one knows when the name Muscle Shoals was first used for this area, however, there are many theories of where the name originated. One theory is that at one time there were piles of mussel shells found along the shoals in the Tennessee River. Another theory is that the shape of the river looks like the muscle in a man’s arm, therefore, Muscle Shoals. The last theory comes from several booklets that were published before Muscle Shoals incorporated. This theory states: “Muscle Shoals, the Niagara of the South, derives its name from the Indians, who, attempting to navigate upstream, found the task almost impossible because of the strong current.” Thus came the word muscle, symbolic of the strength required to “paddle a canoe up the rapids.” The Shoals area, including Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, was first known as the Muscle Shoals district.
In the early 1900's, the land that is now Muscle Shoals was farm land with farm houses scattered among the cotton fields. In 1918, a year after the United States entered World War I, the building of Wilson Dam began. The United States needed nitrates for ammunition and explosives, prompting President Woodrow Wilson to approve the building of 2 nitrate plants and a dam to supply needed electricity for the plants. At its peak, the building of Wilson Dam employed more than 18,000 workers, including some from what is now Muscle Shoals. The construction site consisted of 1,700 temporary buildings, 236 permanent buildings, 185 residential units, and 685 miles of electrical cable. There were also 23 mess halls, a school for 850 students, an 85 bed hospital, and 3 barber shops.
The actual construction for nitrates began in the Muscle Shoals plant in February of 1918, and the first nitrates were produced in November of 1918. Since the war ended two weeks earlier on November 11, 1918, there was controversy over what to do with the uncompleted Wilson Dam which was named after President Woodrow Wilson. The key question was whether to retain government ownership of the complex or to sell the dam to a private industry.
In 1921, automotive tycoon Henry Ford, accompanied by Thomas Edison, came to Muscle Shoals with a vision of transforming this area into a metropolis. “I will employ one million workers at Muscle Shoals and I will build a city 75 miles long at Muscle Shoals,” stated Mr. Ford. The instant rumors of Ford’s plan hit the streets, real estate speculators began buying up land and parceling it out in 25 foot lots and putting in sidewalks and street lights. People from all over the United States bought lots, sight unseen, during this time. Mr. Ford’s offer to buy Wilson Dam for $5 million was turned down by Congress. (The initial cost of the construction of the dam was $46.5 million.) Instead, Congress, under the influence of Senator George Norris of Nebraska, later formed the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop the dam as well as the entire river valley. Senator Norris felt strongly that the public, rather than private companies, should receive the benefits from the government’s investments in Muscle Shoals. Although Ford’s plans did not turn Muscle Shoals into a huge city, it did lay the foundation for the city of Muscle Shoals.
As the area now known as the city of Muscle Shoals became more populated, there became a desire by men of the area to incorporate. On March 7th, 1923, a petition was presented to the Probate Judge of Colbert County to incorporate the town of Muscle Shoals. The petition was signed by 45 men and women that resided in the boundaries of the proposed area. An election was held on March 31, 1923, at the store of Lewis Gusmus on Brick Pike between the hours of eight o’clock in the morning and five o’clock in the afternoon. The inspectors, Lewis Gusmus, George A. Lehbert, and R.H. Huston, gave the final vote as 361 votes for “Corporation” and 6 votes for “No Corporation.” The list of inhabitants residing within the town of Muscle Shoals, which were enumerated by the above inspectors under a decree entered by N.P. Tompkins, Judge of Probate of Colbert County, included 460 white and 267 colored making a total of 727 people in Muscle Shoals. The incorporation of the “Town of Muscle Shoals” was made official on April 24, 1923. An order also called for the election of a Mayor and five Alderman for Muscle Shoals. On May 28, 1923, George McBride was elected as the first Mayor of Muscle Shoals with a total of 26 votes. The Aldermen elected were Henry Green, George Harris, Robert Huston, George Vaughn and R.F. Tucker.
After the incorporation of Muscle Shoals, the town began to grow. It was in 1933, with the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, that a comprehensive program of river and dam development began. This contributed to the conservation and utilization of natural resources. With this, the town began plans for an elementary school, water works, electric power system, and the installation of a telephone system.
During the first 20 years of incorporation, the town development was very slow having only 1,113 people in 1940. By this time some of the residential property had been sold for taxes and some at the local market value. This change to local ownership opened the way for growth and development of the new city.
The 1950's decade, under a commission form of government and a recognized area Chamber of Commerce, became an industrial growth time for Muscle Shoals. Reynolds Metals Company and Union Carbide Metals were quick to convert to peace time production. Diversification came with Diamond Shamrock Company, Ford Motor Company and many others locating in Colbert County.
In the 1960's, Rick Hall, a legend in the music industry, risked locating a major industry of another kind in the city of Muscle Shoals. This industry, Fame Recording Studio, made Muscle Shoals known as “The Hit Recording Capital of the World.” Famous bands and singers, including Aretha Franklin, the Osmonds, Mac Davis, and Duane Allman, came to Muscle Shoals to record hit songs at Fame. Fame Recording Studio is located on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. In 1998, it was added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. The Muscle Shoals Board of Education Building, formerly Howell Graves Junior High School is also on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
The 1990's has brought major change to the city of Muscle Shoals. In 1992, Muscle Shoals became the last city in the state of Alabama to abandon the commission form of government for the mayor/council form of government. Charles R. Mitchell was elected in October of 1992 as the first full time mayor of Muscle Shoals. During the 1990's, the city made significant progress with a new post office, a new city library, a comprehensive flood control plan, a state-of-the-art early warning weather siren system and many miles of newly paved streets. One of the major accomplishments was an “A” credit rating for the first time in the city history in 1996. This rating was improved to an “A2" rating in May of 2001.
The city of Muscle Shoals is currently experiencing the area’s fastest residential and business development. Fire station #3 opened in the Stenson Hollow area in October of 2002. A new 17,000 square foot municipal building opened in December of 2003. The city offers the best in education, sports facilities, and community activities reflecting a diverse Southern culture.
Muscle Shoals is also proud of the outstanding accomplishments and growth of the Muscle Shoals School System which have resulted in state and national recognition for the system. Muscle Shoals continues to rank among the top 10 systems in the state and continues to score above the national average on testing. A new 15 million dollar high school was opened in 1999. Muscle Shoals is a city of southern hospitality that not only has an exciting history, but a promising future.