Canal System

The Muscle Shoals Canal plan. The lane trailing the northern side of the river is the canal. Zoom in to see detailed.

By the 1830s, the Muscle Shoals region was already a growing agricultural center. But more importantly, it was an obstacle for trade due to the unforgiving hazards along the roughly 37-mile stretch of the Tennessee River. The river drops more than 125 feet in that stretch, over limestone shelves that ships would slam and scrape against. The U.S. government determined that something needed to happen for trade to expand and the river to become a highway for export. In 1830, survey work began and the government began fundraising efforts that eventually raised enough for a 14.5-mile Muscle Shoals Canal with seventeen locks. This was not long enough to bypass the entire Shoals, it was expensive to maintain, and it went defunct in 1838. 

US Army Corps of Engineers image of Lock No. 2 after completion in 1877.

In 1871 planning for a second canal, an expansion of the first, began under the purview of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers led by Gen. George Washington Goethals, who would go on to oversee the construction of the Panama Canal, and with direct Federal control. Beginning in 1875, the canal’s construction lasted until 1890, and the number of locks was reduced to nine over the same stretch. A massive, 900-foot steel aqueduct was built to cross Shoal Creek. “The Big Ditch,” as it became known, was the precursor to government control of the river that eventually became the TVA and was an engineering marvel that fascinated the nation.

Images: (CC) US Army Corps of Engineers