For a view of the pre-existing Muscle Shoals region Click on the thumbnail below:
Today, a 75-mile city. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933.
TVA delivered hydroelectric power from the Tennessee River, and it
industrialized the vast river valley. The River's headwaters are in
east-central Tennessee. It winds down across Tennessee, through northern
Alabama, then turns north, cutting through the western tips of Tennessee
and Kentucky, to reach the Ohio at Paducah.
TVA's story began fifteen years earlier on a part of the River in Alabama
called Muscle Shoals. (Muscle Shoals probably got its name because
Indians had to work so hard to canoe upstream in that area.) During WW-I,
President Wilson authorized a dam just downstream of Muscle Shoals to help
power nitrate plants for munitions. Eighteen thousand workers streamed in
to build the factory and dam. The first nitrates were made two weeks after
the armistice. The dam, now called Wilson dam, wasn't finished 'til 1924.
In the meantime, Henry Ford had tried to buy the nitrate works and the unfinished
dam for five million dollars. Congress knew that was a low-ball offer and balked.
So, in 1922, Ford unfurled an over-the-top plan for Muscle Shoals. He would build
a 75-mile city along the reservoir. Having shaped the American automobile industry,
he would now shape the way Americans lived. Muscle Shoals would become a thin
thread of city, in close touch with the countryside along its length.
He would finish Wilson Dam and build more dams upstream. Ford believed that
factories and farms should be integrated — that cities were a mistake. A kind of
technocratic delirium followed. A Scientific American article detailed
Ford's hydroelectric plan and presented a kind of happy-working-peasants
picture of the project.
But the editor added a note on the matter. He liked Ford's idea and the author's
description. But he was gravely concerned about Ford's unrealistic notion of how
the government should fund it.
Ford's friend Edison got on the bandwagon. Land developers, looking to make a
killing, closed in on Muscle Shoals — buying up land and cutting it into 25-foot
lots. Then Congress, still opposed to the project, killed it.
Ford had, however, sown the seeds of the TVA, which Roosevelt pushed through later.
And its centerpiece became another model town design — Norris Village, next to
Norris Dam in eastern Tennessee. Of course no one can ever predetermine anything
as organic as a city. Norris's ideal layout soon grew back into a more conventional
And Muscle Shoals? Well it incorporated into a town of 727 people in 1923. Now it's
a prosperous town of some thirteen thousand. Wilson dam, with its neoclassical design,
is a bit of an oddity in the TVA system. And Ford's 75-mile city? Well, it lies off
there in the mists of unfulfilled dreams with all the other Utopias that we have,
again and again, tried and failed to create.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Addendum, Jan 23, 2014: Listener Dianne Wells writes point out another etymology for the name 'Muscle Shoals.' It is that there was once a significant presence of freshwater mussels in this region, now seriously degraded. Perhaps Muscle is simply a bowdlerization of mussel.
L. McClung, The Seventy-Five Mile City: What Henry Ford Wants to do with Muscle Shoals,
and Why He Wants to Do It. Scientific American, Sept. 1922, pp. 156-i57, 213-214.
(All images are from this source.)
A. Molella and R. Kargon, Environmental Planning for National Regeneration: Techno-Cities
in New Deal America and Nazi Germany. Inventing for the Environment (Arthur Molella and Joyce
Bedi, eds.) (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003): pp. 107-129.
For Muscle Shoals, see: http://www.cityofmuscleshoals.com/Default.asp?ID=11
For Norris, TN, see: http://www.tva.gov/heritage/norris/index.htm
For more on TVA, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennessee_Valley_Authority