Historic Markers Across Alabama

First Muscle Shoals Canal/Second Muscle Shoals Canal 1836-1838/1890-1918

Marker ID:  
Location: on McFarland Park Road 0.4 miles south of Coffee Road (Alabama Route 20), Florence, AL
County: Lauderdale
Coordinates: N 34° 47.097    W 087° 40.463
  34.78495    -87.67438333
Style: Free Standing **
Waymark: None


First Muscle Shoals Canal

From the earliest attempts to navigate the Tennessee River, it was known that a formidable obstacle made the passage from one end to the other almost impossible. This barrier, caused by waterfalls, rapids, sinks, sandbars, and islands, dividing the river into the upper and lower Tennessee River. The vertical fall of the river between Bear Creek below Florence and Brown’s Ferry, east of Rogersville, covered a distance of approximately 80 miles and dropped around 200 feet. The worst section of the fall line occurred between Florence and Brown’s Ferry, known as “The Muscle Shoals.” In a distance of about 37 miles, the river dropped over 137 feet. Surveying and making of the upper part of the Tennessee River began in 1830 to circumvent the entire hazardous barrier from the mouth of Bear Creek to Brown’s Ferry. The U. S. Government relinquished 400,000 acres of land to the state of Alabama to be sold and the proceeds used in financing the Tennessee Canal, later renamed the Muscle Shoals Canal. The plans were downsized to build the canal from Florence to Lamb’s Ferry, south of Rogersville. Plans called for constructing a lateral canal around the barriers of the north side of the river. Construction began in early 1831 and the canal was opened in 1836 at a cost of $644,594. The canal was 14.5 miles long, 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep. It had 17 locks, each 120 feet long and 32 feet wide. Each lock had a lift of almost five feet. Alabama experienced problems maintaining the canal and sought an additional appropriation from the Federal Government but to no avail. This system was abandoned in 1838.

Second Muscle Shoals Canal

Surveying and planning for a second Muscle Shoals Canal began in 1871 under the U. S. Corps of Engineers. Construction began in 1875 with the Army engineers working directly under the Federal Government. The original canal was widened and the 17 locks, over a distance of 14.5 miles were reduced to nine with a total lift of 85 feet. Each lock was 60 feet wide by 284 feet between stills. Three additional locks were added, one at the Colbert Shoals, south of Florence, and Locks A and B that provided a channel around the shoals at the mouth of Elk River. Lock one was at the easternmost point on the canal, on the west side of the mouth of First Creek, west of Rogersville. Lock Nine was at the westernmost point of the system, east of the modern-day Wilson Dam. An aqueduct, 845 feet long and 60 feet wide, was constructed over the mouth of Shoals Creek to avoid the water flowing into the canal. A rail track was built alongside the canal and a locomotive towed the boats through the canal. Lock Six at Killen was the headquarters for the canal. Lieutenant George W. Goethals was assigned to the Muscle Shoals anal project to expedite its completion. It was opened for navigation on November 10, 1890. Goethals was promoted to captain and given command of the Engineering District at Florence. He was in charge of Tennessee River improvements form Decatur to Waterloo under his transfer from Florence in October 1894. In early 1907, Major General Goethals was appointed chief engineer over the construction of the Panama Canal. The Muscle Shoals continued to operate until construction of the Wilson Dam began in April 1918 with over 27 years of service.

Erected in 2018 by Florence Historical Board, Florence, Alabama

End of First Muscle Shoals Canal/Second Muscle Shoals Canal 1836-1838/1890-1918