During the 19th Century, Muscle Shoals, the shallow but often-flooded rapids of this section of the Tennessee River, impeded navigation, steamboat traffic and agriculture, so the federal government explored the possibility of opening the channel to commerce through construction of the dam. The U.S. Corps of engineers began construction of Wilson Dam in 1918, and it began producing power after fiscal fits and starts, in 1925.
The possibility of American's entry to World War I and the ensuring need for munition nitrates spurred construction of Wilson Dam to power nitrate production. Federal engineers selected Muscle Shoals as the construction site because it had the most potential for water power east of the Rocky Mountains. Wilson Dam was only partially completed when the war ended and did not contribute to the outcome, but the nitrates were used for fertilizer in post-war New Deal programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was charged with revitalizing agriculture in the struggling south. (You can learn more about the competition for ownership of the facilities here at signs near the hydroelectric plant.)
The plans for Wilson Dam worked. Flooding has been reduced. Fertilizers developed here spurred agricultural practices that led to revitalization of North Alabama's, and the South's agricultural production.
Barges caring goods pass through the 54 million-gallon lock chamber, completing the 652 mile navigation of the Tennessee River between Paducah, Kentucky, and Knoxville, Tennessee, The dam provides clean, affordable power to surrounding communities. And the fishing is pretty good, too. In 1966 the U. S. Department of Interior designated Wilson dam as a National Historic Landmark.