By Danny Crownover
Back in 1869, there was an article from The Selma Times advocating a canal across Sand Mountain to connect the Tennessee and Coosa rivers. The paper’s editor said that the project would be a great boon to this part of the south and that he wished to stand on the banks of the Alabama River at Selma and welcome the first steamboat from Knoxville and Chattanooga. He even named some of his friends who he wanted to ride into Alabama on such a boat.
Lon Grant, a local newspaper editor from Gadsden, said in a comment that he was the first to advocate such a canal.
The idea was to build a series of locks and dams on Short Creek that flows off Sand Mountain through a gorge that cut deep into the side of the mountain. The plan also called for canalizing the creek across the big plateau and building another series of locks and dams to Big Wills Creek, which in itself would be canalized.
The Selma Times said that the source of Wills Creek was located within one mile of the Tennessee River. At first blush, the project for carrying boats to the top of Sand Mountain and on down into Wills Valley and through Attalla and Gadsden seemed entirely visionary, but it is a fact that United States engineers surveyed the area and declared that the project was feasible.
Before the invention of railroads, public attention was directed to the country’s waterways – both internal and along the seacoast lines – as means of communication and ways for commerce to be transported between the widely-separated territories composing the United States.
It the 1820s, surveys were made for an interior water route along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, including one for a canal across the peninsula of Florida. Back then, the Coosa River occupied a prominent place in all waterway schemes since the river was a well-known feature of American geography.
Prior to 1823, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill to improve the navigation of the Coosa River and aid in its connection with the Tennessee waters. In 1824, this act was formally approved by U.S. Congress.
In 1828, Congress provided that any surplus of the grant for improving the Tennessee River would be applied to the improvement of the Coosa, Cahawba and Black Warrior rivers.
The original project for the improvement of the Coosa River contemplated the opening of a continuous water route of transportation from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Ohio, Tennessee, Coosa, Etowah, Octnulgee and Altamaha rivers, with canals installed from the Tennessee to the Coosa. This was designated as the Southern Route.
In 1867, U.S. Army Major Thomas Pearsall was given the task of surveying the Coosa River’s entire length for a navigational feasibility study. Operating on a generous (for that era) $3,000 budget, Pearsall quickly completed his work, although reports indicated that the last 60 miles – which involved a total drop of more than 275 vertical feet – gave the major’s voyage an exciting white-water finale.
Pearsall recommended no less than 25 locks, using dams to deepen the waters around them. Also proposed was a 50-mile long Coosa-Tennessee River canal from Gadsden to Guntersville. By 1871, the plan had been modified to 31 locks.
The first three locks were essentially completed in the 1880s. Lock No. 1 was located about a mile downstream from today’s Greensport Marina. Lock No. 2 lay some three miles farther south and shared a channel with Lock No. 3, which was located at the south end of Ten Island Shoals, now located just below Neely Henry Dam. These three locks, along with various improvements upstream, opened an additional 25 miles of the Coosa River to commercial shipping.
Later, various interests lobbied to halt further development in favor of other priorities. The Tennessee canal, which would have added $9.5 million dollars in cost, was dropped.
As railways developed into large systems, binding together the distant parts of the country capable of rapid transportation, these waterway projects dropped out of mind, and the Coosa River seems to have been so far forgotten.