Muscle Shoals Canal

Florence and The Muscle Shoals Canal

National and regional authorities planned for a canal through the Muscle Shoals as early as the 1830s. However, the US Army Corps of Engineers did not complete a functioning canal until 1890. Immediately after its completion, the Corps of Engineers established the Florence District as an administrative zone for additional river improvements. This page will examine the infrastructure that sprung up around the Florence District.

Before the canal opened, ferries such as this one near Decatur were the most dependable means of transportation across the river. (Courtesy, Alabama Department of Archives and History.)

The Florence District

In March of 1891, a year after the Muscle Shoals Canal opened, George Washington Goethals assumed control of all future river improvements between Riverton, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. The US Army Corps of Engineers dubbed this new administrative zone the Florence District. From district headquarters in Florence, Goethals oversaw the continued maintenance of the canal. Section gangs repaired railroad tracks, linesmen ensured telegraph lines and posts remained standing, and a new shipyard and drydocks kept river vessels in good condition. The Corps of Engineers also constructed a machine shop, blacksmith shop, mule stable, and iron foundry along the canal. Goethals understood the power of publicity and frequently invited tourists, journalists, and other citizens to tour the facilities.

Colbert Shoals

Another byproduct of the Florence District was a solution to the Colbert Shoals, which further restricted river travel below Florence. In 1893, Goethals convinced the Corps of Engineers that a 26-foot lock at the Colbert and Bee Tree Shoals would work. Construction was soon underway on a Riverton lock at the end of an 8-mile canal through the Colbert Shoals along the southern riverbank. As with the Muscle Shoals Canal, work on this project was slow. But, despite setbacks, it was completed and functional by December 1911. The lock remained in place until February 1938, when the TVA Pickwick Landing Dam flooded it.

The time and effort put into mitigating the Colbert and Muscle shoals speak to the importance of Tennessee River development in the 1890s. The Florence District was instrumental both to river navigation and the continued growth of the regional economy.

The new canal allowed large passenger steamers to safely navigate the previously treacherous Muscle Shoals. In this image, passengers on a riverboat pose for the photographer as their vessel locks through the canal. (Courtesy, Alabama Department of Archives and History.)