Florence area History Tennessee River Railroad Bridge, Florence Alabama

The Tennessee is the largest river flowing through Alabama. It arises at the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers east of Knoxville, Tennessee, flowing in a south westerly direction through North Alabama, then northward to juncture with the Ohio at Paducah, Kentucky.

The navigational value of the Tennessee has long been recognized. The potential for marketing agricultural and industrial products has made water transportation a central issue in the development of the Tennessee Valley. The prosperity and growth of the Quad-City area (Florence, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals) has thus been intertwined with improvement of navigational and land resources.

Although there is ample evidence of pre-historic Indian occupancy of the Tennessee Valley, the Cherokees, according to their own tradition, claimed to have been the original inhabitants. For some reason, they retired from the area around 1650 but retained claim to the area as hunting grounds. The Shawnees moved in to fill the vacuum. Resentful of this intrusion, the Cherokees went on the warpath against them. They fought for forty years. After 1721, when the Cherokees enlisted the aid of the Chickasaws, the Shawnees were driven north toward the Ohio.

Early maps indicate that as late as the mid-eighteenth century, the Tennessee Valley was unoccupied. About 1765, however, the great bend in the river south of present Huntsville, Alabama, attracted the Chickasaws. Seeing their hunting grounds threatened, the Cherokees attacked but were decisively defeated in a battle of 1769. The price of victory was so dear that the Chickasaws decided to leave but refused to relinquish claim to the territory. Henceforth both tribes claimed ownership and gradually drifted back into the area.

Because of the potentially lucrative trade with the Indians, both French and English traders moved into the Tennessee Valley. As early as 1715, a French fort existed at Muscle Shoals. White traders first came in contact with the Chickasaws, and English Americans established a fast and constant friendship with them. One of these traders was James Logan Colbert, a young Scotsman who left the Carolinas with others moving west. He stopped at Muscle Shoals and married a Chickasaw. The union produced several sons, among whom was George Colbert for whom Colbert County is named. Three of the brothers, George, William, and James led 350 Chickasaws to join Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.

Ironically and tragically, for the Indians, the American victory at New Orleans sounded the death knell of their dominance of the Tennessee Valley. After the treaty of 1816 by which the Indians relinquished most of their land in Colbert County, the White man rushed in by the thousands buying the newly acquired lands from the government.

In 1830 President Andrew Jackson summoned the southern tribes to Tennessee. Only the Chickasaws responded. They were told that the President intended to remove them to the West where the government would provide new homes. After a difficult winter expedition to find suitable lands, leaders of the Chickasaws returned in the spring to say that they had failed to find an acceptable location. Nevertheless, after much negotiation and pressure from the government, the Indians accepted removal. Not until 1836 were suitable sites found. In 1837 began the great trek that the Cherokees were to call the "Trail of Tears".

By the time of Indian removal, development of Lauderdale and Colbert Counties was well underway. These counties lay astride major routes from eastern and central sites to New Orleans. The latter was built after Andrew Jackson persuaded Congress of the utility of a road from Nashville to New Orleans. The route passed through Lawrenceburg in Tennessee, Florence in Alabama and Columbus in Mississippi. An 1852 copy of the original Cypress Land Company parchment map signed by Ferdinand Sannoner, the Italian engineer who surveyed and laid out Florence's town plan, shows the Military Road. Today it is called Hermitage Drive and feeds into Court Street, the principal street of the city. Hermitage Drive passes in front of Pope's Tavern, the oldest structure in Florence.

Pope's Tavern was built in 1811, seven years before Florence was founded. The building is said to have been constructed by LeRoy Pope, a government agent and Thomas Bibb, later governor of Alabama. Used as an inn and stage stop, it welcomed Andrew Jackson in 1814 as he rode toward New Orleans. Today it is preserved as a house museum.

Even prior to Alabama statehood, interest in the area prompted the Territorial legislature to create Lauderdale County in 1818, named for Colonel James Lauderdale who was killed at the Battle of New Orleans. Lauderdale County lies west of Limestone County and north of the Tennessee River. The county was made somewhat smaller than originally through an act of the Alabama legislature of 27 November, 1821. The area "in the fork between the rivers Tennessee and Elk" was attached to Limestone County.

Lauderdale County and the towns that sprang up therein produced a bevy of prominent men. Four governors were native's of the county: Hugh McVay, Robert M. Patton, Edward O'Neal and Emmett O'Neal. Florence was the home of W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues". An annual music festival is held in his honor, and his home is maintained as a museum. Among noteworthy early citizens was General John Coffee, Andrew Jackson's right-hand man and leader of the Tennessee Cavalry at the Battle of New Orleans. He resided near Florence for several years and died there in 1833. His wife, who was a sister of Rachel Jackson, lived until the late 1860's or early 1870's.

Florence, the county seat of Lauderdale County, situated on the north side of the Tennessee River at an altitude of 522 feet was developed from a tract of land purchased in 1818 from the Federal government by the Cypress Land Company. The town was laid out by Ferdinand Sannoner (Sanoma), an Italian surveyor who named the town after the beautiful city of his native Tuscany. Lots were sold and yielded $319,513.00. One lot was bought by Andrew Jackson, another by ex-President James Monroe.

The property of the Cypress Land Company was divided into 408 shares. The costs of advertising, surveying, and registering was to be born by the trustees who were to receive five per cent of sales and land rentals. At the end of five years, all unsold land was to be auctioned. Trustees were LeRoy Pope, Thomas Bibb, James Jackson, John Childress, John Coffee, Darby Morris and John McKinley.

The trustees had chosen well. Florence was strategically located to become an entrepot for the upper Tennessee basin. Roads, and probably canals, could connect with Tuscaloosa on the Black Warrior and Cotton Gin Port on the Tombigbee. The river turned north to carry cotton to Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio and bring back manufactured goods.

The climate of the area was delightful, the scenery beautiful, and the soil yielded good quality iron ore and stone surface coal. Numerous streams provided sites for mills and factories. Great expectations surrounded town planning. Squares were set aside for a college and a female seminary. Spaces were provided for a general market, a courthouse, a jail, a cemetery, and a "public walking ground".

Anne Royall, a Virginian who spent several years traveling in the Old Southwest, described Florence, ca. 1821:
Florence is the great emporium of the northern part of the state .... It has a great state to its back, another in front and a noble river on all sides, the steamships pouring every necessary and every luxury in its lap. Its citizens, bold, enterprising, and industrious--much more so than any I have seen in the state.
Mrs. Royall described the river itself as "upwards of five hundred yards wide" and reported that a large ferry worked by four horses could cross it in just a few minutes. The ferry mentioned was, no doubt, the one established in 1818 at the end of Court Street, near the mouth of Cypress Creek. The Cypress Land Company owned the ferry on the north side of the river.

Florence grew rapidly and was incorporated in 1826. By 1820 a handsome courthouse had been constructed. Several brick warehouses were built along the river and approximately 100 frame houses graced the town. A newspaper, the Florence Gazette was founded and was published for many years. The editor was William S. Fulton, a protege of Andrew Jackson who emigrated to Arkansas on appointment by Jackson as the last territorial governor. After Arkansas achieved statehood, he became one of the state's United States Senators.

During the 1830's and 1840's, the population of Lauderdale County expanded rapidly. In 1820 there were 4,351 inhabitants. This figure included slaves (1,013). Census figures of 1830 revealed ll,781. By 1840 the number of inhabitants had reached 14,485. In 1850 the population of Florence was 5,124. This period of rapid development was reflected in the establishment of several industries which included iron foundries and cotton and woolen mills. Unfortunately, these were destroyed during the Civil War.

It is believed that the first steamboat reached the shoals in 1821. In the following year, the Rocket made regular runs between Florence and the mouth of the Tennessee, there unloading goods to be transported to New Orleans and to towns on the Ohio. "Flush times" in the area and growing concern about the tendency of the steamboat companies to charge exorbitant rates led to interest in the development of railroads. Chartered in 1830 and completed by 1832, the Tuscumbia Railway was one of the first railroads in the United States. Just two miles long, it connected Tuscumbia and the site that later became Sheffield. As this line was completed, another was begun by the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad Company. This facility was approximately 46 miles long and was built with planter initiative for the purpose of granting access around Muscle Shoals to the port of New Orleans. The line was not a financial success and was sold in 1847, merged with the Tuscumbia Railroad, and renamed the Tennessee Valley Railroad. These properties were absorbed eventually by the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company, the firm which constructed the Tennessee River Railroad Bridge. After the Civil War, these roads became a part of the Southern Railway System.

As Florence and the Shoals area grew, the need to interconnect their transportation systems became apparent. Consequently, in 1840 a bridge to replace the ferry was built across the Tennessee. A tornado damaged it heavily in 1854, and the flood of 1855 completed its destruction. Memphis and Charleston built the first railroad bridge in 1858 only to have it destroyed in the Civil War. After the war (1870) the bridge was rebuilt.

The opening of the bridge in 1858 was a momentous event. As it neared completion, Major James Deshler noted in his diary:
The great work is now accomplished, and our favored Tennessee Valley is fairly unlocked so that we have free and speedy access to the South Atlantic seaports on the one hand and to the "Father of Waters" on the other. Who will say we are not blessed?
The bridge benefitted not only the Shoals area but surrounding counties and states, especially Giles County, Tennessee. Farmers there then had an outlet for surpluses of horses, cattle, hogs and grain; and they supplied Shoals merchants with cheaper goods than could be obtained in St. Louis or Louisville.

Dynamic growth engendered interest in education. Beginning with the founding of LaGrange College in 1830, the first college in Alabama, the Shoals area continued to develop a superior system of higher education. LaGrange was located some distance from the city of Florence. The people of that city offered to furnish a large endowment and better buildings if the college would move there. The offer provoked a serious controversy among faculty, students and alumni. Nevertheless, in 1855 President Richard Rivers, most of the faculty, and a majority of the students moved to Florence. Some remained, however, and in 1857 the school became a military academy. It gained a reputation as the "West Point of the South'', but the Civil War so depleted its ranks that it was forced to close its doors. In April, 1863, Federal troops burned the buildings to the ground. Meanwhile the Florence school evolved into Florence Wesleyan University. The strictures of war closed this school also, but operations were resumed in 1866. In 1872 a "Class A" normal school was established on the foundations of Florence Wesleyan. The act which chartered the school was made contingent upon the gift of buildings by the board of trustees of Wesleyan. Supported by the state of Alabama and small contributions from the Peabody Fund, it was successful from the start. In 1929 the school became a four-year, fully accredited institution as Florence State Teachers' College. It has subsequently gone through three more name changes: Florence State College (1957), Florence State University (1968), and the University of North Alabama (1974). Enrollment in the fall of 1989 was 5,610.

Tuscumbia, the county seat of Colbert County, originally called Ococoposa, arose at the same time as Florence and experienced concomitant growth. The first settler came to the big spring in 1815. In 1820 the Alabama legislature incorporated the town. After 1824, an early newspaper, The Tuscumbian, recorded the socio-economic growth of the community. Advertising in The Tuscumbian often announced arrival of loads of goods from Philadelphia. Surprisingly, there were many books and other luxury items.

Several nearby settlements, such as Bainbridge and South Port, enjoyed prosperity until the 1830's. But when the railroad was built, practically everyone moved to Tuscumbia in expectation of its becoming the great metropolis of the Southwest. The boom was temporary, and with the exception of York Bluff, Tuscumbia was the only one of the original towns to survive.

During the 1820's Tuscumbia provided academies for both male and female as well as schools for Indians on Bear and Caney Creeks. The crowning jewel, located in the countryside, was LaGrange.

When the Civil War came, the martial enthusiasm of the young men of the Shoals thrust them into the Confederate Army faster than they could be equipped. In August of 1861 they rendezvoused at Courtland; and many left there to become a part of the Sixteenth Alabama, ranked among the South's finest fighting men. Today a permanently organized reenactment group commemorates their valor.

Tuscumbia was devastated during the war. She lost most of her buildings and her public records. During Reconstruction the city shared the tumult of her neighbors. Later she was to become famous as the home of Helen Keller.

Florence first experienced the Civil War through a Federal gunboat raid in early February, 1862. Henceforth until the end of the conflict in 1865, the town was occupied.

The Shoals area's river and railroad resources made it the target of Federal incursions. At the outset of the war, three railroads served the Tennessee Valley. The Memphis and Charleston, which served the Shoals, was considered the major railroad in the South. The M&C had been in regular operation since 1858, running through Chattanooga in Tennessee, Bridgeport, Stevenson, Scottsboro, Huntsville, Decatur, and Tuscumbia in Alabama, then through Corinth, Mississippi to Memphis.

The Memphis and Charleston was an invaluable resource during the early years of the Civil War. Troops were shuttled to the Battles of Shiloh and Corinth as well as to the general defense of Western Tennessee. When the line was captured by the union, then it became the duty of the Confederates to destroy the rails as fast as the Federals could replace them. Ironically some of the same individuals who had so avidly supported construction of the M&C found themselves tearing up the rails. Despite Confederate efforts, however, the Union army, following its policy of cutting transportation links, burned many bridges and trestles, the bridge at Florence among them.

Lauderdale County suffered from terrorism and violence during the early years of Reconstruction. The area was, no doubt, inflamed by the proximity of Federal troops and an active Ku Klux Klan. An alarmed Republican complained to Governor William Smith that, "Terrorism and anarchy reins [sic.] in this county." Smith refrained, nonetheless, from imposing martial law. By 1871, as Democrats regained political initiative and the citizenry demanded an end to violence, order was restored and economic recovery began.

With the end of Reconstruction and Federal bridling of the local press, several newspapers appeared in the Shoals area. One of these was the North Alabamian edited by Arthur H. Keller, son of David Keller who was associated with the first railroad built in Alabama. The former was the father of the yet to be world famous Helen Keller.

The 1870's brought the resurrection of Southern railroads. The Louisville and Nashville was chartered in Tennessee and Kentucky in 1850. During the Civil War, its management attempted neutrality, but the location of its tracks led to heavy damage. By an agreement of 1871, L&N purchased a 2 1/2 mile track between Sheffield and Tuscumbia (the Sheffield and Tuscumbia Railway).

Again the Shoals area attacked a pervasive navigational problem. A 36-mile long succession of reefs and shoals having a fall of 131 feet (Muscle Shoals) constituted the chief obstacle to navigation on the Tennessee. In 1828 Congress had granted 400,000 acres of land to Alabama, the proceeds to be used for improvement of the Shoals. Three canals were constructed, but the improved section was still so difficult and dangerous that it proved unfit for commercial use and soon fell into decay. In the 1870's plans were revived for reconstruction of the canals. Colonel George W. Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal, was prominently involved in the project which was completed in 1890 at a cost of $3,191,726.50. Within the next fifteen years, the country entered the electric age, and focus toward development of the Shoals shifted from transportation to the production of hydro-electric power.

Meanwhile a new city arose on the south side of the river opposite Florence. The first settlement on the present site of Sheffield was a French trading post. In 1816 Generals Jackson and Coffee forded the river at Florence and camped on the bluffs of the south side. Jackson is said to have been so impressed with the site that he envisioned it as the future site of the nation's capital. After fighting their Indian campaigns, they returned, bought the land and laid out a town called York Bluff. The town survived but failed to prosper.

In the fall of 1883, Alfred Moses, a banker from Montgomery, Alabama, came to York Bluff as a guest of Colonel Walter s. Gordon of Atlanta. Together with two citizens of Florence, W.B. Wood and George P. Keyes, they toured the land which had been optioned by Gordon and his brother. The aftermath of this visit was the incorporation of the Sheffield Land, Coal and Iron Company (December, 1883). Capital was secured form Montgomery and Atlanta. The following spring a land sale proved highly successful. Sheffield was a reality.

Horace Ware, founder of the Shelby Iron Works, was among those who foresaw the efficacy of Sheffield as a major site for iron production. He surmised that, while Birmingham was closer to raw materials, lower costs at Sheffield would make her competitive. By 1888 there were five huge iron furnaces in Sheffield. A map of 1884 shows the area along the river marked by furnaces with other business and residential lots laid out in a regular grid pattern.

Between 1885 and the early 1890's, Sheffield shared in an Alabama industrial boom. Coal and iron operations were begun by Walter Moore and "Colonel" Ensley. Later these operations were taken over, eventually by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company and by Sloss-Sheffield. Transportation improvements were made also. In July, 1904 the firsc electric streetcar made its way to Florence across the railroad portion of the Tennessee River Bridge. Thereafter, hourly service was established.

No sooner had Sheffield been founded than Florence, which had lain comatose since the Civil war, began to rise from the ashes. Spurred by the example of Sheffield, businessmen in Florence established many new firms, among them blast furnaces. The furnaces attracted other industries, and recovery was underway.

At the onset of Word War I, the Muscle Shoals Hydro-Electric Power Company, a subsidiary of Alabama Power, was planning the development of vast power facilities at Muscle Shoals. But the war crisis and plans by the Federal government to build nitrate plants in the area prompted a shift in plans. After unsuccessful negotiations to agree upon a price from the government for pertinent properties, the company, in the interest of national security, donated sites for the plants. Then the government began construction of Wilson Dam to supply the necessary electricity for nitrate production.

Just as the nitrate plants were finished, the war ended leaving the facilities no longer needed. Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison, realizing the potential of the area for the production of hydro-electric power and fertilizers, visited the site. The result was a bid from Ford, entered in 1921, for the lease of government properties. A counterbid was made by Alabama Power Company. Comparisons of these offers were rife in the press. The Ford bid was debated for two years in the House of Representatives before being approved.

When Ford's offer reached the Senate, it became the center of political and media controversy. In some instances Ford's motives were compared with those of the infamous Teapot Dome scandal participants. As a consequence, in 1924 he formally withdrew his offer. Although a new town, Muscle Shoals, was incorporated on the strength of Ford's plans, the area lay idle until 1933. In that year Nitrate Plant No. 2 was transferred to TVA and became the National Fertilizer Development Center which researches and produces cheap fertilizers. For some years Plant No. 1 lay abandoned. Later it was utilized by Reynolds Metals company as an aluminum can factory.

Soon after the passage of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933, the construction of Wheeler Darn began. The Alabama Power Company settled with TVA concerning transfer of title for this and other sites for a remuneration of $29.67 per acre. The attractively low electric rates which resulted from this development and the equalization of freight rates placed the region in a competitive position. Reflective of the economic dynamism of the area was the O'Neal Memorial Bridge, built for automobile traffic and opened in 1939.

TVA improved the lot of much of the Tennessee Valley's population, but there was much to overcome. Poor whites, particularly, had for decades eked out a subsistence as sharecroppers, miners, and textile workers, and during the Great Depression shared the poverty of the state and region.

TVA provided the impetus after World War II for the building of new, expanding, and diversified industries. The Tennessee thus began to realize its full potential as a source of economic wealth. Largely unsubdued until the advent of TVA, it is now, of all the world's rivers, the "most deftly chained".

Florence became one of the fastest growing Alabama cities. In 1948 there were fifty industries in the city proper producing such items as metals, chemicals, stones, timber and millwork, meat products, medicines, wearing apparel, and fertilizers. The surrounding area was a leader in cotton and mineral production. This prosperity continued for several decades, spilling over into the other cities of the Shoals and itself attracting new, and sometimes, unusual industries. Sheffield and Muscle Shoals, e.g., support a recording industry specializing in country music.

During the late 1970's and early 1980's, economic factors beyond local control resulted in the loss of some 3,500 jobs with the closing of some plants and the scaling down of work forces in others. The result was an unemployment rate more than twice the national average and visible evidence of recession. In reaction to this situation, in 1985 Vice-President of the University of Alabama, Malcolm Portera, conducted a comprehensive study of the Shoals. He recommended that the six governing bodies of the counties and municipalities involved allocate $100,000.00 over a five-year period. The product of this study was the chartering of the Shoals Industrial Development Authority in 1986. TVA supported this study by preparing, as a recruitment tool, a detailed analysis of those industries best suited for and most likely to be attracted to the Shoals.