Sheffield is located in Colbert County, in the northwestern corner of Alabama on the Mississippi border and along the Tennessee River. It was incorporated in 1885 and has a mayor/council form of government. Fred Thompson, the former two-term U.S. senator from Tennessee, actor, and 2008 presidential candidate was born in Sheffield.
Some accounts mention the presence of a French trading post as the first white settlement in area in the 1780s, but most note that Sheffield was built on a site that had been traveled by Andrew Jackson and John Coffee, U.S. Army generals who led their troops through the area along the Military Road in 1816. Later, Coffee reportedly surveyed some land that both he and Jackson purchased. A town called York Bluff arose there, but it was short lived.
The area gained prominence with the discovery of iron ore and limestone in the post-Reconstruction era. Captain Alfred H. Moses, of the Montgomery-based Moses Brothers banking firm, along with Col. Walter Gordon and his brother C. E. Gordon, purchased 2,700 acres in the area in 1883. The following year, they incorporated the Sheffield Land, Iron & Coal Co., which was funded by the sale of lots within the boundaries of the proposed town. Sheffield was incorporated on February 17, 1885, and named for the industrial city in England. Alfred Moses was appointed by Gov. Edward A. O'Neal as the first mayor. The Sheffield Furnace Company built a blast furnace that began operating in 1887, and it was followed by another furnace in 1888 built by Enoch Ensley, who also purchased another furnace built by Sheffield Furnace Company. Shortly, five blast furnaces were operating in the city; the company would shut down in 1926.
The Sheffield Company, founded in 1904, soon began to provide water and electricity to Sheffield, Florence, and Tuscumbia; a streetcar line provided public transportation between those communities as well. Although several companies had been formed by the turn of the century to exploit the power of the Tennessee River and build hydroelectric plants at the Shoals, little came of those ventures. In October 1917, as the United States was preparing to enter the war in Europe, Sheffield was selected by Pres. Woodrow Wilson as the site of a plant to produce ammonium nitrate, an important component in explosives manufacturing. (A second plant was built in Muscle Shoals.) A housing community, Village Number 1, was built to accommodate workers. In 1918, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the Wilson Dam and hydroelectric facility, approximately five miles upriver from Sheffield, to provide power for the plants, bringing additional construction jobs and a housing boom to the town. As many as 20,000 workers were employed on the projects at their peak.
The nitrate facilities were not completed in time to contribute to the war effort, which ended in November 1918, and were essentially abandoned after the war, severely curtailing the economic boom. The dam would not be completed until 1924. During the 1930s, the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) acquired the dam and factories to produce fertilizer and electricity, which helped the community weather the Great Depression.
During World War II, Reynolds Aluminum Company constructed an aluminum-processing plant in Sheffield to take advantage of access to abundant electricity, also helping to bring the city out of the Great Depression. In 1949, the city expanded by annexing some TVA housing developments. Ford Motor Company brought another facet of the aluminum industry to Sheffield, building an aluminum motor-parts casting factory in 1957. The plant operated until 1983, and its closure caused high rates of unemployment and required extensive cleanup efforts to rid the site of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Sheffield is known as the home of the now-defunct Muscle Shoals Sound Studios (founded by members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section), where numerous hit records were recorded and produced beginning in 1969 at 3614 Jackson Highway. A new studio was built in 1978 at 1000 Alabama Avenue and is now owned by the film studio Cypress Moon Productions.
Sheffield's population at the time of the 2010 Census was 9,039. Of that number, 69.7 percent identified themselves as white, 26.8 percent as black, 2.3 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 0.3 percent as Asian, and 0.3 percent as American Indian and Alaska Native. The city's median household income was $34,910, and per capita income was $19,619.
The workforce in present-day Sheffield is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (18.1 percent)
· Manufacturing (15.3 percent)
· Retail trade (12.4 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (10.6 percent)
· Construction (9.1 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (6.8 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (6.0 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (5.7 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (4.2 percent)
· Wholesale trade (3.8 percent)
· Public administration (3.3 percent)
· Information (2.8 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (2.0 percent)
Public education is overseen by Sheffield City Schools. One K-2 primary, one 3-6 elementary, one junior high, and one high school collectively serve approximately 1,340 students and employ 95 teachers. Nearby institutions of higher education are the University of North Alabama in Florence and the Northwest-Shoals Community College, which has a campus in Muscle Shoals.
Sheffield is accessed by U.S. routes 72 and 43 and state routes 12, 17, and 20 to the east. U.S. Route 72 also runs to the south of Sheffield. The Norfolk Southern Corporation and the Tennessee Southern Railroad Company both run rail lines through Sheffield. The closest airport is the Northwest Alabama Regional Airport, approximately six miles southeast of the city.
Events and Places of Interest
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places are the Cambers-Robinson House (ca. 1875), the E. L. Newman House (ca. 1925), the Sheffield downtown commercial and residential historic districts, Nitrate Village No. 1 Historic District, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and the Seven Mile Island Archeological District. The Sheffield Railroad Depot (ca. 1948) is listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. The Ritz Theatre, dating from 1927 and the silent movie era, was purchased and restored in an Art Deco style by the Tennessee Valley Arts Association. It now hosts theatre productions, concerts, and other public, as well as private, events.
Outdoor recreational activities are available at Riverfront Park, which provides a boat launch, docks, fishing, picnicking,
and other amenities on Pickwick Lake along the Tennessee River. In addition, the city has several other parks that offer a
variety of athletic fields, tennis courts, picnic facilities, and playgrounds. The Sheffield Recreation Center houses an indoor
swimming pool and other athletic amenities and meeting spaces. The city also maintains two rental facilities for banquets,
parties, and similar events.
Heritage of Colbert County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc., 1999.
Published August 16, 2011
Last updated March 22, 2013