Tennessee Valley Authority

TVA and Economic Development

Upon its creation, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) assumed many responsibilities and positions in the Tennessee River Valley. From its initial headquarters in Muscle Shoals, TVA initiatives and programs significantly influenced the local economy. This page will discuss some of those initiatives and how they impacted the environment and inhabitants of north Alabama.

The Tennessee Valley Authority administers dams along the Tennessee River from Paducah, Kentucky, to Knoxville, Tennessee. This map identifies several TVA dams. Courtesy, Alabama Department of Archives and History.)

TVA Initiatives

The TVA grew out of the New Deal, a series of economic programs, initiatives, and new agencies intended to mitigate the Great Depression’s devastation. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the earliest agencies established with this goal in mind. The CCC offered public works and infrastructure jobs to the unemployed. On May 18, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established TVA, an agency first conceptualized in the 1920s that closely collaborated with the CCC. Roosevelt gave TVA control of the federal government’s properties in Muscle Shoals. Such as Wilson Dam and the defunct nitrate plants. Additionally, TVA pursued national defense, agricultural, and industrial development, and controlled flooding along the Tennessee River.

At Wilson Dam, TVA technicians began researching a new method of river management to combat an environmental threat in the Tennessee River Valley: malaria. Standing water along the river led to large swarms of mosquitos that spread malaria at an alarming rate; at least thirty percent of the population struggled with the disease in the 1930s. By raising and lowering the water levels throughout their reservoirs, TVA technicians denied mosquitos a stable breeding ground. The method worked; authorities have not reported a malaria case in the affected zones since 1949. TVA workers also manipulated the environment in another way: reforestation.

The CCC and TVA teamed up in their early days to address riverbank erosion. The TVA Forestry Division had four primary goals: to enforce woodland fire protection, reforest sparse land, increase timber yields, and promote sustainable timber harvesting practices. Between 1933 and 1942, CCC labor helped reforest 110,000 acres of eroded land with hardwood trees. In 1940 alone, the Tennessee River Valley produced over $100 million in wood products.    

Some black TVA employees held lab research positions. However, TVA leadership usually relegated black workers to manual labor roles. Seperate company housing for white and black employees further divided the workforce. (Courtesy, Library of Congress.)

Muscle Shoals Reservation

The Muscle Shoals Reservation occupied five thousand acres plus three villages first constructed to house nitrate plant workers during World War 1. Between 1933 and 1949, TVA workers and their families occupied housing at Nitrate Village No.1 near the unused Nitrate Plant No.1, Village No.2 east of Sheffield, and Village No.3 near Florence and Wilson Dam. Village No.1 featured prefabricated homes, a school for TVA employees' children, a library, and other amenities. The "Negro village," at Wilson Dam was located near an isolated swamp and railroad tracks. TVA housing for black employees lacked most of the other villages' amenities. TVA claimed to offer workers equal opportunity, but black employees were only permitted to hold non- or semi-skilled jobs. This policy was a constant point of contention among black employees, civil rights activists, and the TVA administration throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

As part of the TVA Act, the corporation assumed control of the then-idle Nitrate Plant No.1 and 2. In the early 1930s, TVA began producing a new agricultural fertilizer at these facilities: triple superphosphates. Harcourt Morgan supervised the conversion of Nitrate Plant No.2 into the National Fertilizer Development Center (NFDC), which allowed for large-scale fertilizer testing. Forty years after NFDC research began in 1934, Tennessee Valley farms were twice as productive as the average American farm per acre. Once World War II began in 1939, TVA drafted plans for a new ammonia plant. By the 1940s, TVA's Muscle Shoals plants produced sixty percent of the phosphorus used in American ammunition. Other TVA factories around the Southeast supplied the military with rubber, aluminum, anhydrous ammonia, and naval transport vessels.

Though TVA gradually moved its headquarters to Knoxville, Tennessee in the 1970s -- frustrating some Alabamians in the process -- it retains a strong presence in the region. Visit the linked web page for more information on TVA and its programs and projects.