Wilson Navigation Lock

Nashville District
Published Jan. 11, 2024
Aerial view of Wilson Navigation Lock, with river bank on left

Wilson Navigation Lock

Wilson Lock is located in the northwest corner of Alabama.

Located at Tennessee River mile 259.4, the lock is 15 miles below the Wheeler Locks and 52.7 miles above Pickwick Lock.

It is the highest single lift lock east of the Rocky Mountains with a normal lift of between 93 and 100 feet!

Lock History

The original project was completed by the Corps  in 1927.  In 1959, TVA completed the main single-lift lock, along with several related improvements, to replace the old and inadequate double-lift lockage system.  It began operating Nov. 10. 1959.  The modified auxiliary lock was reopened on Feb. 9, 1961.

The Wilson Dam

The largest hydroelectric installation in the world when construction began in 1918

Names for President Woodrow Wilson, located on the Tennessee River at Muscle Shoals, Ala., was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide hydroelectric power for nearby nitrate plants, as well as to improve navigation for river traffic on the Tennessee River.

When construction began on the dam in 1918, it was the largest of its kind.  A special engineering district was created at Florence, with Col. Hugh L. Cooper, National Army, named as district engineer.  Col. Cooper later became consulting engineer for the Aswan Dam on the Nile River in Egypt.  At its completion in 1926, the Wilson Dam was the largest hydroelectric installation in the world.  A test site for draft tube design, three different designs were incorporated in the first three turbines.

The dam is 137 feet high, 4,862 feet long and 105 feet thick at the base. The cost of the project was $119,000,000.

In addition to providing 630 megawatts of electricity, the Wilson Dam also serves as the basis for the Tennessee Valley flood control system.  The lock allows commercial and recreational traffic to flow up and down the river, while the 16-mile, 15,500-acre lake formed in the rear of the dam provides beauty and tourism to the area.

The design and engineering of the structures established two world records, one for the length of the dam and one for lock lift height.  The knowledge gained from ongoing studies of the ecology and environment surrounding the Wilson Dam may help to solve problems associated with most single large dams around the world, like the Aswan Dam.

During construction of the dam and the nitrate plants, more than 18,000 workers were housed at one time in the construction camp.  Total camp population was 21,000 at its highest.  One of the 23 mess halls seated 4,000 persons and was the largest mess hall ever built.  Nine hundred sixty workers were employed at one time in preparing meals, and free schools were provided with an enrollment of 850 children.

Originally constructed with eight hydro generators, the Wilson Dam has been expanded to include 10 additional generators capable of generating 630 million watts of power per hour at full load, which is equal to or greater than many fossil power units built in the state or in the Tennessee Valley Authority system.  A new single-lift lock has replaced the original locks, increasing barge traffic and providing community and visitor access to recreational facilities up and down the river.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates and maintains the navigation locks and performs maintenance dredging in the main channel and safety harbors.  The dams and reservoirs are operated by TVA, which also promotes navigational development.

The Muscle Shoals Canal - "The Big Ditch"

The Muscle Shoals Canal, affectionately known as the "Big Ditch," cleared a water passageway along the Tennessee River through northwestern Alabama in the first part of this century.  The canal project, aimed at taming the river through the Shoals area, was started in the early 1800s and completed in 1911.  The project is credited with increasing industrial, recreational, and residential growth in the northwestern part of the state. It made possible the development of fertilizer and nitrate plants in the area, and established north Alabama as a major national resource during the war years.

The Tennessee River, some 650 miles long, begins its course north of Knoxville, Tenn. It flows southwest to the northeastern part of Alabama, then across the entire northern part of the state. Before the erection of Wilson Dam and the dams along the river that were built later by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Muscle Shoals in northwestern Alabama posed obstruction on the river, creating for all practical purposed, two rivers - the upper and lower Tennessee. The shoals mark a fall line where the river drops some 140 feet over about a 35 mile stretch. Along this stretch the river was treacherous, with waterfalls, reefs, sandbars, islands, and other impediments marking passage too hazardous for commercial traffic. The canal was an early attempt to make the river navigable, and included nine locks and a steel aqueduct, or water bridge, that carried boats over Shoal Creek, which had a fluctuating water level.

In seconding the canal's nomination to the Engineering Hall of Fame in Florence, Ala., city historian William Lindsey McDonald said, "The giantic endeavor to conquer the Muscle Shoals during the last century was a monument to the engineering genius of mankind." McDonald said that the aqueduct, a structure 900 feet long  and 60 feet wide, was "an engineering wonder of its time, and attracted attention throughout the nation." In McDonald's words, the canal was "the nineteenth-century seed that became the forerunner of the Tennessee Valley Authority that harnessed and tamed the entire Tennessee River Valley of the twentieth century."

The canal project was completed under the direction of the celebrated American engineer Gen. George Washington Goethals, who later supervised construction of the Panama Canal, using the valuable experience he gained constructing the Shouls waterway to create the great locks of that South American project. The Shoals project was his first major assignment and is said to have had enormous influence on his career and the development of his abilities.

When Wilson Dam was completed in 1925, the greater part of the canal was completely submerged.  Today, the walls of the third lock that are visible above the water line at Wheeler Dam are the only parts of the canal that can be seen. The site has been nominated for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  Wilson Dam was inducted into the Engineering Hall of Fame in 1989.

(Go to the Tennessee Valley Authority Wilson Reservoir web page for more information about this project)