Wheeler Navigation Lock

Nashville District
Published Jan. 11, 2024
Wheeler Navigation Lock aerial view, with riverbank on left

Wheeler Navigation Lock

Wheeler Navigation Lock

The Wheeler Locks are located about 30 miles from Decatur, Alabama. 

The locks are at river mile 274.9.  They are 15 miles above the Wilson Locks and 74.1 miles below Guntersville Lock.
The area called Muscle Shoals extended from Elk River to Florence, Alabama and featured a series of rapids, islands, reefs, and bars.  It divided the Tennessee River into two sections and presented the single greatest obstacle to river navigation. 
In 1827, Congress authorized a survey of Muscle Shoals.  A canal was begun around the Big Shoals in 1830, but it could not overcome the many obstacles which made its operation impractical.  This was a pattern followed by many later projects.
Another canal was opened in 1890 by Captain George W. Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal.  It included Riverton Lock, a 26-foot lift over Colbert Shoals.  In Spite of the lock being the highest ever built up to that point, towboats still could not negotiate the area safely.
Tennessee Canal was to be the first canal around Big Muscle Shoals.  It was 14.5 miles, 60 feet wide, and 6 feet deep. It contained 17 locks and cost $644,594.71.  It's construction was abandoned in 1837 due to lack of funding.
The second canal around Big Muscle Shoals was 14.5 miles long also.  It had 9 locks and a total lift capacity of 85 feet.  The system included another canal at Elk River Shoals and a navigation channel at Little Muscle Shoals.  The Elk River Canal was 1.5 miles long.  It had 2 locks and a total lift of 23 feet.  The entire project cost was $3,191,726.50.
Railways established routes around the shoals to provide shippers of produce located above the shoals with access to the Mississippi Valley.  These connections helped provide transportation variety.
After the creation of TVA, the Corps of Engineers plan to develop the Tennessee as one river system was carried out.  The Wheeler project , along with Pickwick and Wilson, eliminated the dangers of the shoals from river navigation. 

Lock History

Construction of the Wheeler Auxiliary Lock was started in 1933.  Although work continued on it until 1937, the lock was put into operation in 1934.  The main lock was begun in 1960.  It began operating May 8, 1963.  

More About the Wheeler Name

The Wheeler Locks are named for a Confederate cavalry general named Joseph Wheeler.  Wheeler fought alongside leaders like Nathan Bedford Forrest and W.H. "Red" Jackson.  One of his more famous encounters was a raid on the Federal forces of General W.S. Rosencrans as they moved from Nashville on Dec. 26,1862 on their way to attack the Confederate forces under General Bragg at Murfreesboro.  Wheeler skirted the Federal column, destroying most of four wagon trains carrying Union supplies for the coming siege. 
Later, General Wheeler headed U.S. volunteers in the Spanish-American War.  He was eventually elected to Congress as well.  In 1898, he introduced a long series of bills proposing the Muscle Shoals be developed for navigation.  These bills eventually led to the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

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