In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson allocated $12 million for the construction of Wilson Dam in Muscle Shoals. In March of the same year, the federal government selected Col. Hugh Lincoln Cooper as project supervisor. At the time, Cooper was in France with the US Army, but army leadership quickly recalled him to fill his supervisory position in the Shoals. Before the war, Cooper was renowned in the United States and abroad for his civil engineering skills. After transitioning from bridge-building to hydroelectric power generation, he forged his reputation in the early 1900s with several successful power plants and dams. These early projects included: a power plant in São Paulo, Brazil; another at Horseshoe Rapids near Niagara Falls; and a hydroelectric dam along the Mississippi River between Keokuk, Iowa, and Hamilton, Illinois. After a month of preparations, Cooper’s crew broke ground on Wilson Dam in May 1918.
Strangely, however, his federal employers sent Cooper back to France during the same month, much to his surprise. Between 1918 and 1920, construction slowed due to a fire at the Jackson Island concrete plant, Wilson Dam’s chief concrete aggregate supplier. Despite these early setbacks, Cooper was brought back on board in 1920, and work picked up again. Construction on the dam was grueling and sometimes dangerous. Alongside the powerhouse and concrete supports, workers had to dig out underground observation tunnels beneath the dam spillway section. These tunnels were cramped, treacherous, and difficult to carve out of the dense, stratified rock beneath the Tennessee River.
In a 1922 report, Cooper mentioned the difficulty of creating a stable foundation beneath the dam, remarking that it might be easier with a "much more experienced handling." Eventually, Cooper's crew overcame these difficulties. Wilson Dam began generating power on September 12, 1925. Four thousand laborers worked on the project, with the final cost at $45 million.