Located in the northeast corner of the state, Etowah County has been an industrial center of Alabama since the nineteenth century. It is the birthplace of William Patrick Lay, the founder of Alabama Power. The city of Gadsden played an important role in both the Civil War and World War II and is the starting point for the annual World's Longest Yard Sale. The county is governed by an elected six-member commission
and includes 13 incorporated communities.
· Founding Date: December 7, 1866
· Area: 542 square miles
· Current Population: 104,430 (2010 Census)
· Major Waterways: Coosa River
· Major Highways: I-59, U.S. 431, U.S. 278, U.S. 411, U.S. 11
· County Seat: Gadsden
· Largest City: Gadsden
Etowah County was created by an act of the Alabama State Legislature on December 7, 1866, from portions of Cherokee and DeKalb counties. Originally named Baine County in honor of Confederate General David W. Baine, the county existed for one year before being abolished by the state's Reconstruction government. One year later, the county was recreated and named Etowah, a Cherokee word believed to mean "edible tree."
The first settlement in what is now Etowah County was located at a town called Double Springs on the Coosa River. Double Springs was transformed on July 4, 1845, when Captain James Lafferty piloted the first steamboat to the area. Local residents offered to name the town "Lafferty's Landing" in his honor, but Lafferty declined. Instead, the name Gadsden was chosen, in honor of Colonel James Gadsden of South Carolina, famous for the Gadsden Purchase. On May 2, 1863, during Union colonel Abel Streight's raid through north Alabama, a local farmer named John Wisdom gained notoriety when he raced ahead of Streight's troops, who were in turn being pursued by Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, to Rome, Georgia, to warn the town's citizens of the Union troops' impending arrival. A young girl named Emma Sansom became a local heroine during the raid when she led Forrest and his men across Black Creek to capture Streight's troops.
In 1903, Gadsden resident William Patrick Lay built his first hydroelectric plant on Big Wills Creek, which furnished the town of Attalla with electricity. He organized Alabama Power Company in 1906. Gadsden became an important military center during World War II, when the Gadsden Ordnance Plant was constructed to produce shells for cannons. By the end of the war in 1945, the plant had produced more than 16 million shells. In 1942, the U.S. took possession of 36,300 acres in Etowah and adjoining St. Clair County to establish Alabama's first Chemical Warfare Center (CWC). Known as Camp Sibert, it served as a Unit Training Center and a Replacement Training Center for the CWC. Deactivated in 1945, Camp Sibert was the training site for more than 45 percent of all CWS troops who served in WWII. In 1963, Etowah County received national media attention when civil-rights worker William Moore was murdered near Attalla.
Major Cities and Demogr aphics
According to the 2010 Census, the population of Etowah County was 104,430. Of that total, 80.3 percent of respondents identified
themselves as white; 15.1 percent as African American, and 3.3 percent as Hispanic, 1.5 percent as two or more races, 0.6
percent as Asian, and 0.4 percent as Native American. The median household income was $36,378, compared with $40,547 for the
state as a whole, and the per capita income was $20,354, compared with $22,732 for the state. The county seat, Gadsden, had
an estimated population of 38,856. Other towns in the county are Rainbow City, Attalla, Glencoe, Hokes Bluff, Sardis City, Southside, Altoona, and Mountainboro.
Because of its rolling and hilly terrain, Etowah County has never been an agricultural powerhouse. Instead, the county's natural resources and large labor force have made it one of the most important industrial centers in Alabama. In 1845, Coosa Furnace, located on the banks of Big Wills Creek, became the first iron furnace built in the county. In 1895 Dwight Mill in Alabama City was organized, and at the height of its production in 1953, it employed 2,600 people. The mill, which included a village, eventually closed as a result of strikes in 1959. In 1900 Underwood Coal Company was organized and later purchased by Alabama Steel. At one point, the company had 11 mines in operation near the town of Altoona. In 1929 Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company constructed a plant in Gadsden. At the turn of the twenty-first century it remained the largest employer in the county, with 2,550 workers. On October 5, 2006, U.S. Steel workers went on strike at the plant, which left approximately half the workers without jobs. As of August 2007, Goodyear announced that it would spend close to $125 million to upgrade the plant. The second largest employer, Gulf States Steel, organized in 1903 and in 1998 employed 1,900 workers. In 2000 the company declared bankruptcy and closed.
The workforce in present-day Etowah County is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (24.2 percent)
· Manufacturing (17.6 percent)
· Retail trade (11.2 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (7.6 percent)
· Construction (7.5 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (6.6 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (5.1 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing, and utilities (4.9 percent)
· Public administration (4.6 percent)
· Finance and insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (4.4 percent)
· Wholesale trade (3.6 percent)
· Information (1.7 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (1.1 percent)
The Etowah County School System currently employs 540 teachers who serve more than 8,400 students in 22 schools. In addition
the Attalla City School System currently employs 115 teachers who serve more than 1,800 students in four schools. The Gadsden
City School System currently employs 362 teachers who serve more than 5,400 students in 17 schools. Etowah County also contains
four private schools with enrollments of approximately 1,200 students. Etowah County is also home to Gadsden State Community College, a two-year public coeducational institution.
Comprising approximately 542 square miles, Etowah County lies in the northeastern area of the state, wholly within the Cumberland Plateau physiographic section. It is bounded to the east by Cherokee County, to the south by Calhoun and St. Clair counties, to the west by Blount and Marshall counties, and to the north by DeKalb County.
The Coosa River runs north to south through the eastern half of the county, and two of its tributaries, Black and Big Wills
creeks, intersect the area. In 1966, Alabama Power constructed H. Neely Henry Dam on the Coosa River, creating the H. Neely
Henry Lake, which covers the southern tip of Etowah County. In addition, both the Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain ranges
are located in the county. Interstate 59 runs north-south through the center of the county, and U.S.11 and U.S. 411 parallel
the same route. U.S. 278 runs east-west through the center of the county, and U.S. 431 runs north-south. Gadsden Municipal
Airport is the county's only public airport.
Events and Places of Interest
Gadsden is home to one of the state's most breathtaking geographic features, Noccalula Falls, a 100-foot waterfall. Every August the "World's Longest Yard Sale" begins in Gadsden and runs along the scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway. The four-day event attracts thousands of shoppers and yard-sale vendors to the area. The area also features Silver Lakes, a golf course on the famed Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Lake Neely Henry features some of the area's best fishing, including crappie and largemouth, spotted, and striped bass.
Etowah County Centennial Commission. A History of Etowah County, Alabama. Birmingham: Roberts and Son, 1968.
Heritage of Etowah County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc., 1999.
Patricia Hoskins Morton
Published August 29, 2007
Last updated October 27, 2014