Wilson Dam, located on the Tennessee River between Colbert and Lauderdale Counties near Muscle Shoals, was originally constructed to provide hydroelectric power for the production of nitrates during World War I. It also made the river more navigable, provided energy for regional development, and created numerous recreational activities. Wilson Dam is the largest conventional hydroelectric power-generating facility in the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) system.
Wilson Dam Wilson is a concrete gravity dam, meaning that it holds back the water entirely by its own weight. The dam is situated on a blue limestone rock foundation. The total length of the structure is 4,541 feet, it is 137 feet high, and the maximum width at the base, including the apron, is 160 feet. The head (the water depth on the east, or upper, side of the dam) is 97.6 feet. Originally, the dam’s face bore 49 spillway gates, each capable of discharging 10,000 cubic feet of water per second; there are now 58 spillways. The structure was such an engineering feat that in 1925 author William Benjamin West dubbed it “America’s Greatest Dam.”
The dam’s origins lie in the shallow and often turbulent pockets of rushing currents that mark the infamous Muscle Shoals section of the Tennessee River. The shallow rapids impeded navigation and commerce, and the expansion of steamboat traffic and plantation agriculture along the river’s bottomlands in the early nineteenth century inspired state and federal efforts to seek ways of taming the treacherous shoals. These early efforts, including a canal around the shoals and a system of locks and gates, were largely unsuccessful, however.
The creation of Wilson Dam was ultimately spurred by World War I and America’s possible entry into the conflict. Government officials feared that the nation’s supply of nitrates, an essential ingredient in the production of explosives, could be terminated by the German Navy. At the time, the United States relied on guano (bird or bat dung) imported from Chile as the source of this critical military resource. In response to this potentially disastrous problem, the National Defense Act of 1916 was passed; it authorized immediate construction for two nitrate plants to be powered by an adjacent hydroelectric facility. Federal engineers selected Muscle Shoals as the construction site after surveys determined that it had the most potential for the development of water power east of the Rocky Mountains.
Construction of Wilson Dam Built between 1918 and 1924 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the supervision of the U.S. War Department, the project employed more than 18,000 workers, and the construction site consisted of 1,700 temporary buildings, 236 permanent buildings, 185 residential units, more than 165 miles of sewer and service pipelines, and 685 miles of electrical cable. The settlement’s 23 mess halls served more than 24,000 meals a day, and it also housed a school for 850 students, an 85-bed hospital, and three barbershops. An average of 111 railcar loads of equipment and materials arrived daily, and more than 800 bricklayers worked at one time under a single roof. However, Wilson Dam was only partially completed when the war ended and did not contribute to the outcome. The dam structure was not finished until 1924, and then only 40 percent of its electric generating capacity was installed. The navigation facilities at the dam consisted of a double-lift lock whose tandem chambers–60 feet by 292 feet on the upper lock and 60 feet by 300 feet on the lower lock–had a combined maximum lift of 90 feet. These locks worked with the existing Florence Canal and Lock and Dam No. 1. With the completion of the locks and dam, the treacherous Shoals were made navigable and steamboats and barges were finally able to travel this stretch of the river unimpeded. Wilson Dam’s first electricity generating unit did not go into service until September 1925. The entire Muscle Shoals project–including the dam–cost $130 million.
Riverboat in Wilson Lock, 1935 For the next few years, federal officials struggled with the future of the Muscle Shoals properties. The plant’s hydroelectric capacity and the potential for fertilizer production at the nitrate plants led them to shift purpose of the facility from national defense to domestic needs. The dam’s potential attracted the attention of auto manufacturer Henry Ford, who made a much publicized offer to purchase the complex for $5 million. Ford promised to make Muscle Shoals the “Detroit of the South,” and many locals, as well as the labor unions, backed Ford’s vision. However, Ford faced a strong opponent in Nebraska senator George W. Norris, who opposed Ford’s offer because he felt the government should control the development of natural resources. He proposed that the Alabama facility be utilized as part of a plan for unified resource development along the Tennessee River. Congress debated Ford’s offer until he ultimately withdrew his bid, citing numerous delays. The debate over Muscle Shoals raged for many years and involved such entities as the Alabama Power Company and engaged notable Alabama statesmen such as J. Thomas Heflin, Oscar W. Underwood, and Lister Hill. This controversy continued until the advent of the Great Depression and the election of Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under whose tenure national priorities and the political climate underwent a dramatic change.
Wilson Dam, 1934 When Roosevelt inspected Muscle Shoals in January 1933, he related that he was impressed with the size of the operation and found it twice as large as he had imagined. He also stated that he wanted to put the facility to work for the good of the region, its people, and future generations. Roosevelt ended the controversy over the future use of the properties at Muscle Shoals in May 1933, when he backed Norris’ plan as part of his New Deal program to revitalize the economy and signed a bill creating the Tennessee Valley Authority, the independent agency of the federal government charged with the unified development of all the resources of the Tennessee Valley. TVA converted the long-idle nitrate plants to fertilizer research and production, and Wilson Dam became the cornerstone of TVA’s overall plan for development of the entire Tennessee River.
A substantial portion of the original Wilson Dam structure remains intact, but some alterations have been made to improve the efficiency of the facility. Perhaps the most significant of these was the construction of a new lock, which, when completed in 1959, was the largest single-chamber lock in the world. The chamber, located on the river side of the original lock, measures 110 feet by 600 feet and has a lift-type upper and mitre-type lower gate. When filled, the chamber contains 54 million gallons of water. The new structure has a maximum lift of 100 feet, a filling and emptying time of 12 minutes, and an average lockage time of 45 minutes. It has the distinction of being the highest single-lift lock east of the Rocky Mountains. In 1966, the Department of Interior designated Wilson Dam a National Historic Landmark.
Generator Units at Wilson Dam Wilson is one of 29 conventional hydroelectric dams that provide flood control, navigation, electrical power, recreation, and water supply for the seven-state Tennessee Valley region. It is the largest conventional hydroelectric facility in the TVA system, with 21 generating units and a net dependable capacity of 663 megawatts. (Net dependable capacity is the amount of power a dam can produce on an average day, minus the electricity used by the dam itself.) On average, 3,700 vessels pass through Wilson’s locks each year.
Wilson Reservoir provides 166 miles of shoreline and 15,500 acres of water surface for recreational activities, including boating and fishing, which have spurred the development of numerous marinas and food and lodging businesses. It holds as much as 640,200 acre-feet of water or 208.3 billion gallons. TVA operates the Wilson Dam-Lower Rockpile Campground, which features 23 campsites, restrooms, picnic facilities and a group pavilion available by reservation.
Ezzell, Patricia B. TVA Photography: Thirty Years of Life in the Tennessee Valley. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Hubbard, Preston J. Origins of the TVA: The Muscle Shoals Controversy, 1920–1932. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1961.
Roosevelt, Franklin D., and Samuel Irving Rosenman. The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Vol. 1, The Genesis of the New Deal, 1928-1932. New York: Random House, 1938.
Tennessee Valley Authority. The Tennessee River Navigation System: History, Development, and Operation, Technical Report No. 25. Knoxville, Tenn.: TVA, 1964.
West, William Benjamin. America’s Greatest Dam, Muscle Shoals, Alabama. New York: Frank E. Cooper, 1925.