Helen Keller Birthplace Located in northwestern Alabama, Colbert County is the birthplace of Helen Keller and home to FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios, renowned for its southern rock, soul, and R&B recordings. Colbert County is governed by an elected six-member commission and includes six incorporated communities.
- Founding Date: February 6, 1867
- Area: 589 square miles
- Population: 54,957 (2020 Census estimate)
- Major Waterways: Tennessee River
- Major Highways: U.S. 43, U.S. 72
- County Seat: Tuscumbia
- Largest City: Muscle Shoals
Colbert County Courthouse Colbert County was created by an act of the state legislature on February 6, 1867, and was named for brothers George and Levi Colbert, leaders of the Chickasaw Nation who operated a ferry across the Tennessee River. Originally part of Franklin County, Colbert County was created to increase Democratic representation in the state legislature at a time when Alabama was controlled by Radical Republicans during Reconstruction. With a black population of less than 25 percent at the time, Colbert County provided the Democratic Party with a white majority. On November 29, 1867, the Republican legislature repealed the act that brought the county into existence. In January 1870, Gov. William Hugh Smith abolished the repeal, and Colbert was once again a county.
Muscle Shoals Canal The Tennessee River made Colbert County an important antebellum trade center in the South, although the Muscle Shoals section of the river was virtually impassable during the early nineteenth century. Numerous flinty, jagged rocks broke the surface, and the sharp fall of the river—some 130 feet over 37 miles—produced extensive rapids. Navigation of the area was restricted to flatboats, keelboats, and other small craft. Efforts to construct canals in the shoals dated back to 1783, but it was not until the advent of the steamboat during the 1820s that the river was seen as a potential major transportation route. In 1831, Congress authorized the construction of a canal around Muscle Shoals, but after six years the project was abandoned. In 1873, the project was revived, under the supervision of Col. George W. Goethals, who would later oversee the construction of the Panama Canal. The final project, completed in 1890, cost more than $3 million. Muscle Shoals was finally made navigable by the construction of Wilson Dam in 1924.
Downtown Tuscumbia During the early nineteenth century, Tuscumbia served as the area’s commercial district and included grocery stores, hotels, blacksmiths, wagonmakers, mercantile shops, and a men’s academy. The river landing at Tuscumbia served as the trading hub of the county. The Tuscumbia Railway Company completed a rail line to the town in 1832. Two years later a railway from Tuscumbia to Decatur was completed that traversed the rocky Muscle Shoals area of the river. During the 1850s, the railroad was sold to the Memphis and Charleston. In November 1874, the region suffered severe hardship after a tornado ripped through the county, virtually destroying Tuscumbia.
Tuscumbia is the home town of author and activist Helen Keller, who was born on June 27, 1880, at her parent’s estate, Ivy Green. She is most famous as the deaf and blind girl who learned to communicate through sign language, a story made popular on the stage and screen in The Miracle Worker. Keller’s most important work, however, was as a human rights and labor activist and as an ambassador at large for the United States. Early in the twenty-first century, she was chosen as one of two Alabamians whose statues represent Alabama in the national capitol, where she became the first profoundly disabled American to be so honored.
MuscleShoals Sound Studio The town of Muscle Shoals is renowned for its contributions to the music world. In 1959, Rick Hall opened FAME, the first successful recording studio in the state of Alabama. Specializing in gospel, soul, blues, and rock & roll, the music studios of Muscle Shoals have attracted some of the most popular musical acts of the past century, including Aretha Franklin, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wilson Pickett, Rod Stewart, and Little Richard. In 1990, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame was built in Muscle Shoals to honor the achievements and legacy of Alabama musicians.
Major Cities and Demographics
Ritz Theatre in Sheffield According to 2020 Census estimates, Colbert County recorded a population of 54,957. Approximately 78.8 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, 16.2 percent as African American, 2.9 percent as Hispanic, 2.1 percent as two or more races, 0.6 percent as Native American, 0.5 percent as Asian, and 0.1 percent as Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. The county seat, Tuscumbia, had an estimated population of 8,445. Other population centers in the county are Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Cherokee, Littleville, and Leighton. The median household income was $47,962, compared with $52,035 for the state as a whole, and the per capita income was $25,807, compared with $28,934 for the state as a whole.
Colbert County Map Comprising approximately 589 square miles, Colbert County lies in the northwestern area of the state, primarily within the Highland Rim physiographic section. A small section of the northwestern corner of the county lies within the Coastal Plain physiographic section. Colbert County is bounded to the north by Lauderdale County, to the east by Lawrence County, to the south by Franklin County, and to the west by Tishomingo County, Mississippi. The Natchez Trace, an important early trade route of the Old Southwest, passes through the northwest section of the county.
The Tennessee River runs along the entire northern border and part of the western border of the county, and several of its tributaries, including Bear, Rock, Can, and Spring creeks, intersect the area. In 1918, the Army Corps of Engineers started construction of the Wilson Dam, the first dam on the Tennessee River. Completed in 1924, the dam created Wilson and Pickwick Lakes along the northern border of Colbert County. U.S. 72, running east-west, and U.S 43, running north-south, are the county’s major transportation routes. Northwest Alabama Regional Airport, in Muscle Shoals, is the county’s only airport.
Wilson Dam The Tennessee River has long played an important role in the economy of Colbert County, although difficulty in navigating the treacherous Muscle Shoals section of the river hindered trade during the nineteenth century. The Muscle Shoals Company was founded in 1783 with the aim of funding a canal project that would connect the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico via the Tennessee River. Tuscumbia became an important trading area, and several river landings and railroad stops traversed the shoals. Between 1852 and 1860, more than 16,000 bales of cotton were shipped annually from Tuscumbia to New Orleans. In 1918, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction on Wilson Dam. In addition to the dam, Congress authorized the construction of two nitrate plants for the making of explosives and two coal-fired steam plants for power production. At its peak, the massive project employed 18,000 workers and the construction site included 1,700 temporary buildings, 236 permanent buildings, 185 residential units, 23 mess halls, a school and a hospital. The first nitrates were produced in November 1918, but World War I ended less than two weeks later, leaving speculation as to what to do with Wilson Dam. In 1921, Henry Ford offered to buy the dam and the town of Muscle Shoals but was turned down by Congress. The dam was finally completed in 1924 and was operated by the Army Corps of Engineers until the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) gained control in 1933. Today, the shoals that hindered river traffic are submerged under Wilson Lake.
Ford Plant in Sheffield The town of Sheffield, located between Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals, contained deposits of limestone and iron ore needed for production of pig iron. The Sheffield Furnace Company erected its first blast furnace in 1887 and was later purchased by industrialist Enoch Ensley in 1889 before closing in 1926. In 1941, the Reynolds Aluminum Company came to the area to produce aluminum for use in manufacturing war planes. In 1950, Ford Motor Company built an aluminum casting plant at Sheffield, which employed 125 people. By 1973, the plant employed 1,750 workers and was the world’s largest aluminum-casting plant. The plant closed in December 1983.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Colbert County was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (21.6 percent)
- Manufacturing (19.2 percent)
- Retail trade (11.0 percent)
- Construction (8.7 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (8.6 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (6.3 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing, and utilities (6.3 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (5.7 percent)
- Public administration (4.1 percent)
- Finance and insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.4 percent)
- Wholesale trade (2.7 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (1.3 percent)
- Information (1.1 percent)
The Colbert County School System oversees eight schools. In addition, Tuscumbia City Schools oversees five schools, Muscle Shoals City Schools oversees six schools, and Sheffield City Schools oversees four schools. Northwest Shoals Community College maintains a campus in Muscle Shoals.
Events and Places of Interest
Coon Dog Grave Tuscumbia is home to several attractions including Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller. The home is operated as a museum and plays host every summer to a performance of “The Miracle Worker” by local actors on the museum grounds. The Tennessee Valley Art Association is a multidisciplinary non-profit regional organization that develops and offers cultural arts programs for the people of northwestern Alabama. Programming includes rotating exhibitions, juried art competitions, the annual Helen Keller Festival Fine Art and Craft Show, and workshops and classes for adults and children. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame showcases the achievements of Alabama musicians. Also in Tuscumbia is the Coon Dog cemetery, where more than 100 coon dogs have been laid to rest. The cemetery features decorative headstones with unique epitaphs. Wilson Lake and Picwick Lake offer some of the best fishing in the Southeast, including large and small-mouth bass, bream, crappie, catfish, sauger, and striped bass. Muscle Shoals is home to The Shoals resort complex, one of the stops on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail.
Barton Hall, on the former Cunningham Plantation near Cherokee, is a notable Greek Revival building on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Heritage of Colbert County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, Inc., 1999.
- James, R. L. Colbertians: A History of Colbert County, Alabama and Some of its Pioneer Citizens before 1875. Florence, Ala.: Natchez Trace Genealogical Society, 1980.
- Leftwich, Nina. Two Hundred Years at Muscle Shoals: Being an Authentic History of Colbert County, 1700-1900, with Special Emphasis on the Stirring Events of the Early Times. Tuscumbia, Ala.: n.p., 1935.