Killen is located in Lauderdale County along the north bank of the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. It owes much of its existence to the canals and locks constructed nearby to ease navigation on the shoals of the river. Killen has a mayor/council form of government.
Towboat and Locomotive Killen’s history dates to the early 1800s, when the area began to be settled while Alabama was still part of the Mississippi Territory. The town became known as Masonville for Joseph Mason, the first postmaster for the post office, established there in 1826 and operated until 1866. In the 1830s on the north bank of the Tennessee River, the state began constructing a system of canals and locks known popularly as the Muscle Shoals Canal. The aim was to circumvent the shoals in the river to facilitate the shipment of goods, especially cotton, that at the time could only occur during periods of high flow. The project would eventually consist of 17 locks and attracted workers and settlers to the area. The canal and locks were closed by the late 1840s, according to some sources, from lack of funds for maintenance, as the canal was prone to flooding. Efforts to build another canal were renewed by the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1870s and would culminate in a nine-lock canal that ran from about present-day Joe Wheeler State Park to present-day Wilson Dam in Florence. Among those involved in the construction was Lt. George Washington Goethals, who would later work on the Panama Canal. Opened in 1890, the system even featured a length of railroad track running from Lock Four to Lock Nine that allowed locomotives to pull boats through the canal, according to a Corps of Engineers map. The headquarters were located at Lock Six near present-day Killen. One early map of the canal refers to that area as “Engineer Camp.”
Brooks High School, ca. 1935 The construction and operation of the locks again attracted workers, housing, a store and post office, a blacksmith shop, and numerous other buildings. Shopkeeper James Sharp Killen built a store and applied for a post office in 1895, and the town was established in 1896 as Killen. The canal closed in 1918 when construction began on Wilson Dam and was eventually submerged when the dam was completed in 1924. Present-day Lock Six Day Use Area in Killen is a reminder of the canal and features a historical marker. The city was incorporated in 1957 and a police department and fire department were established in 1962.
The League of the South, a white nationalist, neo-Confederate organization, is headquartered in Killen, which is the birthplace of founder Michael Hill. The Alabama Wildflower Society is also headquartered in Killen.
According to 2020 Census estimates, Killen recorded a population of 1,146. Of that number, 95.3 percent of respondents identified themselves as white, 3.8 percent as African American, 0.9 percent as Hispanic, and 0.9 as two or more races. The town’s median household income was $52,005, and the per capita income was $24,656.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Killen was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services and health care and social assistance (37.9 percent)
- Retail trade (12.9 percent)
- Construction (8.1 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (7.9 percent)
- Professional, scientific, and management, and administrative and waste management services (6.4 percent)
- Finance and insurance, and real estate and rental and leasing (5.7 percent)
- Manufacturing (5.7 percent)
- Public administration (4.7 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, and recreation, and accommodation and food services (4.1 percent)
- Wholesale trade (4.0 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing, and utilities (2.6 percent)
Public education in Killen is administered by Lauderdale County Schools. The city has one elementary school and one high school.
Killen lies just east of the intersection of State Highway 43 and State Highway 72 that run north-south and east-west, respectively.
Events and Places of Interest
Killen is located just north of Wilson Lake and the Tennessee River, both of which offer numerous recreational activities. Lock Six Day Use Area has access to the waterway. Killen Park provides baseball and tennis facilities. Listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage is the Brooks Elementary School (ca. 1935), formerly the local high school.