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The Legend of Muscle Shoals

The Legend of Muscle Shoals

An Ideal Location for a City — Florence*

In the beginning of the world, so the Cherokees said, a beautiful water sprite, the Goddess of the Tennessee, was imprisoned by the Great Spirit beneath the rushing waves of Muscle Shoals. Throughout the ages the Prince of Power of the Air hovered near, whispering his love upon the perfumed evening breeze or venting his despair in storm and tempest. Although his beloved flashed back her smiles and murmured tender secrets which only a lover could understand she could never come forth from her hiding place. 

Just why the water sprite had been imprisoned the Cherokees did not explain but they believed this to be true. They said that the Prince of the Air and the Goddess of the Tennessee could never be united until there should appear a mighty magician who, with a wave of his wand, would bring together these spirits of the water and of the air. Then, thought the Cherokee, there would follow such a reign of peace and plenty upon the earth as had never been known before. 

It was not the Cherokee, alone, who felt the promise of this region. The white men also fell under its spell. In 1818 three Tennesseeans, traveling through what is now Lauderdale county, Alabama, told each other that some day a great city would arise at the foot of Muscle Shoals on the hill where Florence now stands. These three men were General John Coffee, who won fame in the Battle of New Orleans, Judge John McKinley, who became a Supreme Court Judge of the United States, and James Jackson, a wealthy turfman, whose thoroughbred horses became known the world over. 

They bought up the land for miles around from the Native Americans and they organized “The Cypress Land Company.” They had the town of Florence surveyed and plotted and then they advertised a big land sale. Among the purchasers of lots there in the woods near Muscle Shoals were three presidents of the United States — Madison, Monroe and Jackson, and the records show that they paid a fancy price for the land they bought. 

Although no one dreamed in that day of the enormous value of water power, still the Tennessee river was regarded as a prime factor in the growth of Florence. And so the town started with a boom and prospered greatly for forty years. Then came the War Between the States in which the people of North Alabama suffered more than those of other sections, and Florence furnished her share of the South's heroes. Later she furnished her share of the State's governors. Governor Patton, Governor Moore, Governor Edward O'Neal, and years later, his son, Governor Emmett O'Neal came from Florence to the State Capitol as its executive head. 

After the War and after the Reconstruction, Florence again awoke to the value of her water power. The little water sprite was still flirting with the Prince of the Air and they were both waiting for the Magician's wand to set her free. 

Then one day came General George Goethals, sent by the United States Government, to build a canal at Muscle Shoals so that boats might fly up and down the Tennessee river.. But General Goethals did not even know that the Goddess of the Tennessee was imprisoned beneath the waters, because only children and forest folks know anything about sprites and fairies. Just a plain general could not be expected to understand all of that. After the great man had completed as much of his work as the government would allow he left Florence and later on became famous for his work at the Panama Canal. 

Sometime afterward, men of science began seeing visions that consisted chiefly of water power and electric currents. And everyone knows that Muscle Shoals is the best place in the world to see visions of that kind. Every time the big men stood on the banks of the Tennessee and talked about nitrate, water power, electric current and matters of that nature, the Prince of the Air perhaps took heart and whispered low to his sweetheart beneath the rushing waters, “‘Twill not be long, little Goddess of the Tennessee!’” Then maybe she would nod and smile and say things which only a beautiful water sprite knows how to say.

Commercial Value of Muscle Shoals

lovers-leap-featureWhen the big guns in Europe were booming forth their demands for ammunition, the United States Government appropriated $20,000,000 for building plants to manufacture nitrates. For you see, Ammonium Nitrate is a high explosive that is used in filling shells. In the fall of 1917 the Government undertook the building of two nitrate plants on the Tennessee river, near Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia — “'The Tri-cities.” 

A few months later President Wilson authorized the development of the Muscle Shoals water power by the Government. You must know that the water power at Muscle Shoals is so great that it could run every factory in Alabama if it were properly harnessed. The power furnished by the big dam that was built there turns the wheels which operate the dynamo and the dynamo supplies the electric current which takes the nitrogen from the air. Not only ammunition but fertilizer also is made at Sheffield Nitrate Plant. 

When a farmer wishes to grow large crops he of course fertilizes his land. If fertilizer can be made by taking nitrogen from the air and changing it into plant food the farmer can buy his fertilizer cheap. Four-fifths of all the air is nitrogen and there is enough nitrogen over the smallest county in the state to keep the human race going for centuries. Taking the nitrogen from the air by means of the electric current is a wonderful discovery. Using water power for putting nitrogen in shape for plant food will help to end the high cost of living. For the farmers can raise many times as much food on the same amount of land if they can buy cheap fertilizer. Then of course they can afford to sell their crops for less. 

The shoals in the Tennessee river were magic little fish called “Mussels.” (Also spelled M-u-s-c-l-e). For thousands of years mussel shells piled up layer upon layer, until there was a mountain of mussel shells built up from the bottom of the river making the stream impassable for boats. Besides furnishing fertilizer to the farmers and ammunition to the warriors, the big project at Muscle Shoals will perform another great service for all the people. 

Two huge concrete dams are being built (1919) that will change the river at that point into a deep narrow lake nearly seventy miles long. When the big dams are completed water will pour into the lake thus formed until the channel is deep enough for the boats to go over the shoals without touching the mountain of shells in the river. Then boats can go the whole length of the Tennessee into the Ohio and thence into the Mississippi river down to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Altogether the Muscle Shoals project will mean billions of dollars for the Alabama people. Next best to that, the little Water Sprite has been set free to join the Prince of the Air and “live happy ever afterwards.”

* Adapted from Mrs. Emmett O’Neal’s version of this story. [source]