Days Gone By - stories from the past

UPDATED WITH PODCAST – Sheffield, Alabama has a historic village laid out in the form of the Liberty Bell [films & pics]

WWI need for nitrates

During 1916 as the United States was drawing closer to involvement in the war in Europe, it became apparent to the Congress and the War Department that unrestricted German submarine warfare could severely curtail or completely halt the nation’s total supply of nitrates imported from Chile. Congress realized that the disruption of this vital munitions material would cripple U. S. military potential; it, therefore, passed the National Defense Act in order to counter the threat. (continued below)


Village # 1 Sign

The village sign

Nitrate plant and dam built in Muscle Shoals area

This act appropriated $20,000,000 to develop a plant for the domestic production of ammonium nitrate and empowered President Woodrow Wilson to acquire, by condemnation if necessary, all lands needed for the construction of the plant and its surrounding reservation.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Defense Act which authorized the construction of two nitrate manufacturing plants and a dam to provide them hydropower. The dam was located in Muscle Shoals and was named after him, Wilson Dam. The nitrate was built to produce ammonium nitrate using the Haber process. However, the plant was not able to produce the large amount needed. Another plant was built that used a different method called the cyanamide process.

March 7, 1918 – United States Nitrate Plant No. 2, Reservation Road, Muscle Shoals, Muscle Shoals, Colbert County, AL

MARCH 7, 1918. - United States Nitrate Plant No. 2, Reservation Road, Muscle Shoals, Muscle Shoals, Colbert County, AL

Wilson Dam construction started 1918

Wilson Dam was completed in the early 1920’s and spans the Tennessee River between Lauderdale County and Colbert County in the state of Alabama. When construction began on the dam in 1918, it was the largest of its kind. A special engineering district was created at Florence, with Col. Hugh L. Cooper, National Army, named as district engineer. Col. Cooper later became a consulting engineer for the Aswan Dam on the Nile River in Egypt. At its completion in 1926, the Wilson Dam was the largest hydroelectric installation in the world.

View looking S.E. at the Lime-Nitrogen Silo And Hydrating Buildings

May 29, 1919VIEW LOOKING S.E. AT THE LIME-NITROGEN SILO AND HYDRATING BUILDINGS. MAY 29, 1919

U. S. Nitrate Plant village for black workers 1918U. S. Nitrate Plant village for blacks 1918

Village #1 was homes for workers

Homes were needed for the officers and workers near the plant so Harold Caparn, a landscape architect was chosen to design an industrial village for Nitrate Plant Number 1. Construction on the village started in the latter half of 1918.

 View Looking East At Block ‘D’, February 11, 1918

View Looking East At Block 'D', FEBRUARY 11, 1918

Laid out in shape of Liberty Bell

The unique layout of the village was in the form of a handbell which resembled the Liberty Bell, including the handle, body, clapper and a school at the base. The village contained 112 residential homes, 2 school buildings, and a large apartment building for unmarried officers. Maud Lindsay, who was a nationally-known writer of children’s books was chosen as the first kindergarten teacher at the school.

liberty-bell-shaped-residential-section-for-government-employees-muscle-shoals-alabama-department-of-archives-and-historyLiberty Bell Shaped Residential Section for Government Employees, Muscle Shoals (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The village contained 112 residential homes, 2 school buildings, and a large apartment building for unmarried officers. Maud Lindsay, who was a nationally-known writer of children’s books was chosen as the first kindergarten teacher at the school.

Houses unoccupied after WWI

After World War I ended, the plant was not needed. and was closed. The houses stood unoccupied for some time. Then in 1921, inventor Thomas Edison and industrialist Henry Ford visited Wilson Dam.

Ford sought to purchase the then-uncompleted dam and build a manufacturing plant for his automobile company nearby. The city Ford hoped to build around his plant would have stretched for 75 miles.

Blackwell said when Ford offered $5 million for the unfinished dam and surrounding land that was valued at $130 million in 1922, U.S. Sen. George Norris, of Nebraska, lamented that if Congress accepted the bid, it would be “the greatest gift bestowed upon mortal man since salvation was made free to this human race.”

Ford’s bid turned down

Ford’s bid was turned down by Congress but remnants of his quest to build a sprawling city in the Shoals are still apparent. Blackwell said Ford’s bid prompted many speculators to purchase property in Muscle Shoals and begin preparing it for housing developments, including installing sidewalks, fire hydrants and street lights. After Ford’s bid was rejected, many of the proposed housing developments reverted back into farm fields or woodlands.

Until 1933, a small number of the houses were occupied by Alabama Power Company workers. Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska thought the site should be utilized for public use, and in May 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the Tennessee Valley Authority. The industrial complex was used for fertilizer production and as a developmental center.

Tennessee Valley Authority production. Chemical plants. Studies in the high-pressure synthesis of gases are being made continuously in the TVA laboratories in the Muscle Shoals area. The plants served by these laboratories make ammonia for conversion into ammonium nitrate for use in the manufacture of high explosive shells, elemental phosphorus for incendiary bombs and shells, phosphoric acid and highly concentrated phosphatic fertilizers. June 1942

1942 nitrates plant

(Left to Right) Paul L. Imes, Samuel C. Watkins, and George W. Richardson are employed as laboratory technicians by TVA at its plant at Muscle Shoals.  1942(left to right) Paul L. Imes, Samuel C. Watkins, and George W. Richardson are employed as laboratory technicians by TVA at its plant 1942

Alonzo Bankston is a furnace operator in the TVA plant producing carbide for use of plants manufacturing synthetic rubber by photographer Alfred Palmer June 1942Alonzo Bankston is a furnace operator in the TVA plant producing carbide for use of plants manufacturing synthetic rubber 1942 by Alfred Palmer

School for children of workers

“Educational needs for the children of the workers was one major concern of the T.V.A. By fall of 1933 classes were opened in both the former officers quarters and the school building. The officers quarters were easily adapted for school use and housed one of the more progressive elementary schools in the southeast during its years of operation.”

Wilson Dam, Alabama (Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)). Safety and patriotic meeting at TVA chemical plant June 1942 Arthur RothsteinWilson Dam, Alabama (Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)). Safety and patriotic meeting at TVA chemical plant June 1942 Arthur Rothstein2

The houses were originally designed by Ewing & Allen, Architects and built by J. C. White Engineering Corporation of New York as bungalows in the Craftsman tradition which was popular in the United States at the turn of the century. The houses and buildings have brick foundations and stuccoed walls and red tile roofs.

 Wilson Dam, Alabama (Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)). Workers in chemical plant receive free medical care Arthur Rothstein 1942Wilson Dam, Alabama (Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)). Workers in chemical plant receive free medical care Arthur Rothstein 1942

Old apartment building utilized

The apartment building/school was built in an “H” shaped arrangement. Nitrate Village #1 was built from May 1918 – May 1919, along with two other villages no longer in existence. Nitrate Village 2 and Village 3, which were constructed to house workers at Wilson Dam, consisted of one and two-story frame houses. These houses were removed from the original village sites during the early 1950s and were relocated at various sites around the Sheffield and Muscle Shoals area.village one back

 Interior of United States Nitrate Plant No. 2, Reservation Road, Muscle Shoals, Muscle Shoals, Colbert County, AL photographed 1994 by Jet LoweUnited States Nitrate Plant No. 2, Reservation Road, Muscle Shoals, Muscle Shoals, Colbert County, AL photographed 1994 by Jet Lowe

“In April 1949, T.V.A. deeded all streets, playgrounds and schools in Village 1 to the city of Sheffield and in October 1949 the houses were auctioned with many of the residents purchasing the houses they were living in at the time.”

Bungalow at Village #1, 2010 by photographer Carol Highsmith

Bungalow the village #1 Carol Highsmith 2010

Residents took care of the village

“The residents have, over the years, made an effort to keep the village much the same way it was at the time of its completion and when it was taken over by T.V.A.” Wilson Dam was declared a National Historic Landmark on November 13, 1966. Nitrate Village #1 was declared a National Historic Landmark on August 30, 1984.

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13 comments

  1. Even with my Dad’s dementia he remembers buying our house at the auction. He so much enjoyed the news coverage of the village. We have great memories of our years there (across the street from a little red haired Liz)thanks for all your effort to preserve our history. I remember visiting a little friend who lived in the apartment building and we could roller skate in the down stairs communal room. Also remember Ms Porters class at the school. Seems she was principal and our teacher?? What a great life!! We could run around the neighborhood even after dark with no concern for anyone

  2. […] the 1880s, a railroad work crew leader and engineer by the name of Phillip Campbell who resided in Sheffield, Alabama. “Campbell. Campbell was born in Liverpool, England in 1848. In 1880, he was employed as […]

  3. The Power Plant for the Nitrate Plant was at Gorgas Alabama. Surprised this wasn’t mentioned.

  4. Rick Bozeman

    I remember Wilson Dam from when we lived in Florence in 1950 and 1951. First I’ve read the story of the dam.

  5. Brenda Dee

    Grew up there and have wonderful memories❤️

  6. Bunny Brown Drueke

    My husband grew up in that village.

  7. Vicki Strickland

    Beautiful place to visit or live

  8. I grew up in the Village, went to school there from third grade to sixth grade. It was a great place to grow up. All the kids would get together and would play hide and seek, put many miles on my bicycle and playing at the school on the swings. I will always remember the Christmas tree one of the neighborhood folks had.

  9. I didn’t live in Sheffield until the fifties but I remembered that the town still broken up into villages. My family worked for TVA and I even had an uncle who died during the construction of one of the dams. My father went to work for TVA after the Korean War and now my husband is working at Y12 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. So I guess I understand now why the Sheffield schools taught us so much about TVA pro and con. Funny how history becomes part of your life!

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