Content Warning: Antisemitism
At the end of World War I, Henry Ford was one of the most famous and powerful men in America. Between his company’s explosive growth, his massive popularity in Michigan and beyond, and his close friendship with President Woodrow Wilson, Ford was on top of the world. At this point, as often happens with men of power, he took an interest in public issues.
At the same time, a massive construction project was grinding to a halt in the Tennessee River Valley. The Wilson Dam had started as a wartime necessity, but the fighting was over. The dam stood half-complete and the river unexploited.
Ford saw this as an opportunity to combine several of his ideals. Here he could push his pacifist tendencies, ideas for new urban design, opposition to the gold standard, and distaste for Wall Street (largely based on his offensive anti-Semitic views). All of these threads came to bear on the as-yet-nonexistent town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Before the war, The Shoals weren’t much to see. There were a few cotton farms and a handful of small towns nearby, most notably Florence, Alabama across the Tennessee River. The river itself had a strong enough current to make upstream navigation in the vicinity difficult.
In 1918, the United States was deeply involved in World War I and needed to produce more nitrates for ammunition and explosives. Two plants were built in what would be Muscle Shoals and construction began on the Wilson Dam to power them. More than 18,000 workers labored on the project and the massive construction site could well have been a city in its own right, with a school, a hospital, and three barber shops. The nitrate plants, temporarily powered by steam, began production in November 1918–two weeks after the war ended.
With the peace, interest in the dam rapidly declined. Congressional Republicans opposed developing further public works projects. Yet, given the cost to taxpayers–tens of millions of dollars–it seemed a waste to let the structure stand unfinished. Secretary of War John Weeks began searching for private-sector alternatives as it became clear that the changeable political landscape would not allow its completion or operation.
Meanwhile, in Michigan, Henry Ford had proven himself handily in the business world. He had conquered Dearborn, Detroit, and the country with a massive publicity campaign promoting the Model T. He had also become more politically active. In 1915 he leased a steamship and traveled to Europe in a personal attempt to stop the war, a manifestation of his pacifist views. With Wilson’s encouragement, Ford ran for Senate in 1918 and lost by a few thousand votes. Ford was also promoting his dangerous anti-Semitic views.
Ford’s hateful beliefs are well known and repulsive, yet he undeniably altered American life, and influenced urban planning with his Muscle Shoals project.
When Weeks began searching for a private sponsor for Wilson Dam, Ford was first in line. He offered $5 million for a 100-year lease on the nitrate works and dam, which he promised to finish (and to build another upstream). He planned to convert the nitrate plants to fertilizer production, lowering farming costs across the nation. Oddly, he tied the plan to the gold standard: rather than borrowing to pay for the dam’s completion, he recommended the government issue fiat currency backed by the value of the dam itself. Farmers, who had long been on the bad end of the gold standard, supported this plan. Bankers, meanwhile, would lose out–without loans, they would make no money on the deal. Congress, which had to approve the sale, was less than enthusiastic. But Ford doubled down.
In 1922, Ford visited Muscle Shoals with his friend, Thomas Edison, to promote the plan. Ford laid out what the region could become under his leadership: “I will employ one million workers at Muscle Shoals, and I will build a city 75 miles long.”
An article in Scientific American, published in September 1922, provides an enthusiastic summary of the concept: “Through his ‘75-mile city’ Mr. Ford would have the factory and farm working hand-in-glove.” By building the community as essentially a thin strip of outer city, a factory worker could enjoy the benefits of rural life combined with the convenience of urban life. The Scientific American article goes so far as to propose a hypothetical worker who spends his off-work time on his personal farm, with cheap nitrate fertilizer, collective farm equipment loaned by the factory, and an agriculture expert in its employ. The city itself would be a loose spread of factories and urban areas separated by these farm homes.
The plan was popular in the south. It would revitalize an extremely poor area into an industrial center to rival Detroit. Land speculators rushed in, buying and selling 25-foot lots–not exactly the 5- to 80-acre farms Ford proposed. The speculators, who truly believed Ford would bring an explosion to The Shoals, built sidewalks and gutters through the empty fields they had purchased. Many of these sidewalks to nowhere are still there, crumbling in the Alabama humidity. People across the country bought lots they thought would become valuable inheritance. But the explosion never came, due in large part to one man: George Norris.
Senator Norris, a Republican from Nebraska, stood against popular opinion. He believed that Wilson Dam could do more good in public hands than anything Henry Ford could establish. In a January 1922 article, Ford claimed he would turn the completed project over to government control before half his 100-year lease was up and ensure that “neither he nor any of his heirs may realize any monetary benefit.” Norris didn’t seem to believe these claims, and if he did, he didn’t care. He considered Ford’s $5 million offer a waste of the tens of millions taxpayers had already spent on the dam and nitrate works.
Norris had company. The Scientific American article included a carefully worded editor’s note stating: “The most unfortunate part of Henry Ford’s plan for the utilization of Muscle Shoals is that he has chosen to couple it with what most of us believe to be an unsound scheme leading to the debasement of our currency,” referring to the fiat currency plan. Meanwhile, perhaps for more selfish reasons, the National Fertilizer Association of Philadelphia distributed pamphlets titled “Cost to Taxpayers of Ford Muscle Shoals Offer.”
The House of Representatives enthusiastically approved the sale, but Norris blocked so much as a vote in the Senate, and so the city died before it could be born. Ford, again showing his baseless anti-Semitic streak, blamed his failure on “the International Jews” in Wall Street, and moved on with his business, buying massive coalfields instead.
Wilson Dam was completed in 1924 and eventually became a linchpin of the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority, with George Norris’s backing. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in fact, met with Ford to discuss the TVA’s urban design initiatives.Those plans included a series of model towns along the river, although only one was built: the Garden-City-inspired town of Norris, Tennessee–named for George Norris.
Ford went on to build other experiments in urban design: Fordlândia, Brazil, a failed rubber plantation; and Greenfield Village, a museum-town that I’ll write about later this month.
Muscle Shoals itself is now a humble city of some 13,000 (5,000 fewer than the peak of Wilson Dam construction), best known for FAME Recording Studios–home of the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Among its streets are avenues named for Ford, Edison, and Woodward, among other Detroit namesakes and Ford remnants.
The 75-mile city faded into history, and we’re left to wonder what it could have been. Would the dam have been better in Ford’s hands? It was years before the government decided to operate it through the TVA, and without the impetus of the Great Depression it may have been left to rot. On the other hand, Ford’s proposals were, at least in part, self-interested. If not the profit motive, there was speculation that his Muscle Shoals plans may have been a lead-up to a run for U.S. president.
It’s hard to say if Ford’s city would have ever materialized, much less worked. But the vision of farm and factory working together peacefully is a dream we’re still struggling to realize.
McClung, L. (1922). The Seventy Five Mile City. Scientific American, September 1922, 156-157, 213-214.