Tennessee River and Northwest Alabama, by Carolyn M. Barske and Brian Murphy; Arcadia Publishing: Charleston, SC; $23.99 paperback
Visitors to the majestic, wide Tennessee River Valley may contemplate how that river made us who we are. Carolyn M. Barske and Brian Murphy, Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area interim director and graduate student respectively, marshaled a host of regional researchers, archivists, university and public libraries and all their resources to collate a magnificent study of this unique American region in word and well-selected photographs.
The lengthy Tennessee flows east to west, an immediate draw for pioneers seeking to settle over the Alleghenies. Of course, so doing they displaced native Americans who'd dwelled there thousands of years. Testimony to their lengthy occupation is noted in "shell middens," literal mountains of shells discarded by the early residents. The river beckoned, but hindered as well.
A 40-mile stretch of shoals, and lesser shoals, or rocky outcroppings, hindered river traffic. First, cotton planters would portage their product around the obstruction, but this was costly. Next, an attempt was made to build a canal to circumvent the shoals. Poor engineering and silting ruined that plan. Limited success came with the first railroad west of the great eastern mountain chain. Yet even this was problematic, requiring unloading, loading, and reloading of cargo. George W. Goethals, Army civil engineer, of later Panama Canal fame, brought about the first functional canal, and real progress.
World War I saw massive development to create nitrates for explosives, while even greater building came about during the Depression, when the federal government's Tennessee Valley Authority initiative brought electricity to the entire region. It did so through a huge series of dams and locks, thus controlling the river ... mostly. Flooding, while never again so devastating, could not be eliminated.
Barske and Murphy have done stellar work in finding just the right photographs. Each renders clear the vast difficulties in regional development. We see racial discrimination, but also genuine good engineering work. Material errors are not overlooked, and the vast abundance of new industry, from tourism to fishing, to housing construction, to an electrical windfall are all placed in context. A group effort of university students, their leaders, and community researchers has brought about a classic study usable to explain our region's remarkable story.