Jerry Summers: Muscle Shoals Canal(s)

  • Monday, March 4, 2024
  • Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

A previous article, “Value of the Tennessee River” published Feb. 1, 2024, acknowledged the construction and existence of two canals built at Muscle Shoals, Al., in an effort to improve traffic problems on the unpredictable Tennessee River prior to development of the TVA system of dams in the late 1930s.

The barriers of waterfalls, rapids, sinks, sandbars, and the vertical fall of the river from Upper East Tennessee divided the often wild river into two sections.

A combined route approximately 170 miles long, with a drop of 337 feet, started around 1830 on 400,000 acres of land given to the state of Alabama by the federal government to build the Tennessee Canal, later renamed the Muscle Shoals Canal.

Construction of the original canal began in 1831 and was open for river traffic in 1836 with a length of 14.5 miles, 60 feet wide, and channel with 17 locks, each 120 feet wide and 32 feet deep.

Financial difficulties took place and, after a lift of only five feet, the project was abandoned in 1838 when the federal government refused to appropriate additional funding. (Must have been before the free grant generation of the present era.)

A second Muscle Shoals Canal began being built in 1875, with the canal being widened and the number of locks reduced to nine with a resulting water lift of 85 feet.

Three additional locks were built at different locations, and a railroad track was built alongside the canal, which allowed the locomotive to tow boats through the canal.

This system was used until the Wilson Dam was completed in 1924 and remains one of nine dams in the TVA system.

As a result of those combined construction efforts on the Tennessee River, several financial ventures took place by Chattanooga investors.

Perhaps the top speculative river enterprise to occur with local businessmen was launched in the early 1890s on the initiative of such historical figures as Adolph Ochs (Chattanooga and New York Times), Newell Sanders (U.S. Senator 1911-1913), Z.C. Patten (Chattanooga Medicine Co.) etc. and other local businessmen numbering 100, who each gave $1,000 each to purchase the capital stock of the company.

The purpose of the maritime investment was to operate steamships of the tow boat type and barges for the carrying of trade between the upper and lower Tennessee River and points on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, especially between Chattanooga, St. Louis, and then connected with boats to Louisville, Cincinnati, and New Orleans.

Unfortunately, the connection between Chattanooga and Muscle Shoals Canal ended when the reconstructed steamer “City of Chattanooga” sank in the crooked islands in the channel after striking rough broken stones that had been blasted out of the reefs between the shoals, and had been piled up on each side of the lane near the surface of the water.

As a result of deep holes that were created in the bottom of the bank, it partially went to the bottom.

Eventually a combination of factors, including railway competition, would require that new companies be formed with varying degrees of success.

(However the aforementioned original investors in the Chattanooga Steamboat Company did much better in their other financial endeavors.)

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You can reach Jerry Summers at

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