World War I, Nitrate Plants, and Wilson Dam

United States Nitrate Plant No. 2, Muscle Shoals

Historically, the Muscle Shoals stretch of the Tennessee River was notoriously wild and powerful. However, that quickly changed in the early twentieth century.


At the outset of America’s participation in World War I, the United States got its nitrate supplies for manufacturing munitions from Chile in the form of natural deposits of bat guano and saltpeter. German sabotage of munitions facilities and threats to shipping led the United States Congress to authorize the construction of two plants to produce synthetic nitrogen. The plants had to be located at least 400 miles from the coast to deter sabotage. An available source to power the plants was also required. Sheffield and the surrounding area was chosen as the site for the plants in 1917 because of its distance from the coasts and the availability of hydroelectric power from the Tennessee River.  

Survey Drawing of U.S. Nitrate Plant 2 from Historic American Engineering Record

The two plants utilized two different methods to produce nitrates. Nitrate Plant #1 was located near Furnace Hill in Sheffield and was comprised of what are now the Constellium Aluminum and Lumber One buildings, as well as two buildings at Tuscumbia Landing. The buildings at Tuscumbia Landing were demolished but the foundations are still present. This plant was to produce nitrates using a German process, though in the end the method did not work. Nitrate Plant #2 was built on what is now the TVA Reservation in Muscle Shoals and utilized a new experimental Cynamid process to produce nitrates. Nitrate Plant #2 was later used by the TVA to produce nitrates for fertilizer and, along with the International Fertilizer Development Corporation, contributed more than anything else to improved farming techniques and reduced hunger in developing nations.  

Wilson Dam

Nitrate Village #1 was a self-contained planned community built to house the War Department personnel assigned to oversee the construction of the Nitrate Plants. Today, the Village, as it’s now called, consists of 84 stucco and Spanish tile bungalows along streets laid out in the shape of the Liberty Bell. Greenspace fills the large areas of the bell and around the school building that anchors the community. When the war ended, the Nitrate Plants were mothballed and construction on the Village ceased. The hospital and commercial center that was planned was never completed.


To supply the Nitrate Plants with enough power, the U.S. government began construction of the Wilson Dam. The dam was finished after the war and was later absorbed as the first part of the most ambitious public works project the United States has ever undertaken -- the Tennessee Valley Authority. 

Images: Library of Congress