One of the major topics from the book I finished this week....The Forgotten Man....was Wilson Dam. It's an odd topic to drop into a discussion of the depression era, and I ended up doing more research over the dam and it's unique history. I grew up just down the road from the dam and just never grasped any significance over it.
For most who don't know...as we entered WW I....the military let congress know that we simply didn't have the capability to manufacture massive amounts of ammonia nitrate for explosives. For the amount they were talking about....you'd need a massive complex, and massive electrical power. In 1918.....you simply didn't have any ability to produce that much power. So a short discussion came up. Two Alabama Senators were involved, and at the end....Alabama holds up its hand to be the volunteer.
What the Senators and state leadership basically signed onto....was they'd force thousands of folks to accept some money and leave their property in a rural area of northwest Alabama. In exchange, the largest dam in America would be constructed....using government money....not state or private funds....to complete this project. All total? Around forty-six million.....which would into the tens of billions today, face massive environmental lawsuits, and be questioned by the media on a hourly basis.
The nifty thing about this project is that it'd take six years and the war would be over long before it was completed (1924).
What shocked the locals after the dam was finished....was that they were barely a mile from this massive hydroelectric plant when finished, and they couldn't get a single watt of power. They even got around to insulting their Congressmen and Senators in DC.....because the guys in charge of the plant weren't willing to "share" their electricity. It'd take a couple more years before the details were ironed out and folks around the region started to get their "share".
So now, we come the most fascinating part of this dam, which was barely thirty minutes from where I grew up. Two years before the dam was completed (1922)....along came Henry Ford. He had this deal. Even though the US government had spent $47 million on this.....it was now worthless in terms of war appeal. So Henry Ford offered up $5 million in cash to sell him the dam and the power concern.
The intended plan here.....was that this vast amount of open area, with the largest power plant in America sitting next to it. No major towns around except for Florence....which barely had 10k residents. Ford had this vision of a major industrial site that would stretch for miles along the river, and be powered by his own plant.
The US government simply couldn't see a deal here. They would not part with the dam (still under construction) for the $5 million.
So I sat and pondered over this. What if a deal had been worked out? What if Henry Ford had ended up in 1923 with Wilson Dam?
Massive construction would have started by 1924 and a major car plant would have been up and running by 1927. Local population? Ford would have built some customized suburbs in the middle of these cotton fields....with a trolley car operation likely delivering guys to the front door of their plant. By 1929, I would imagine over 100k people living in the Muscle Shoals area and Florence. With the electrical power as an enticement....Ford would have signed up another dozen folks to build onto his "site". You probably would have seen a number of major industries settled into the Shoals region by 1930.
The depression might have come and slowed things down, but we would have seen a massive revival by 1943 and various war enterprises set into motion with Wilson Dam providing power to all of them.
By the 1960s, the Shoals would have had well over 300k residents and likely been one of the largest cities in the south. When you talked of Detroit.....you would have compared the Shoals easily to the Motor City, and the Shoals would have eventually taken over the title of Motor City.
Today, we'd likely have a major league baseball club....an NFL club...and a NBA team. We'd have an airport that brought 10k people a day into the region. It'd likely have made it as one of the twenty largest cities in America.
It could have been.....it would have been....a totally different story. I would have grown up in one of the largest urban areas of the United States. But a bunch of Congressmen and Senators just wouldn't settle on selling an over-priced dam to Henry Ford. And Ford wasn't about to pay forty million. The rest is history.