The Origins of the Tennessee Valley Authority
The TVA story begins at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the Tennessee River drops 140 feet in thirty miles. This drop in elevation created the rapids or "shoals" that the area is named for, and made it all but impossible for ships to travel further up the Tennessee River. In 1916 the federal government acquired the site and began plans to construct a dam there. The dam was meant to generate electricity that was needed to produce explosives for the war effort, but World War I ended before the facilities could be used. During the 1920s Congress debated over what was to be done with the property. Some members of Congress wanted to sell the dam to private interests. At one time Henry Ford offered to purchase the site and develop a nitrate plant in the area.
Senator George W. Norris of Nebraska led the fight to retain public control over the property. Senator Norris had tried six times to introduce bills for the federal development of the area, which were all defeated by unsympathetic Republican administrations. With the coming of the Depression, Americans looked more favorably to government economic intervention in the public interest. President Roosevelt--who had a personal interest in regional planning, conservation, the utilities question, and planning--backed Norris' plan to develop the Tennessee River Valley.
On May 18, 1933 FDR signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. TVA was to improve navigability on the Tennessee River, provide for flood control, plan reforestation and the improvement of marginal farm lands, assist in industrial and agricultural development, and aid the national defense in the creation of government nitrate and phosphorus manufacturing facilities at Muscle Shoals.
The Tennessee River ran through seven states, through some of the most disadvantaged areas of the South. Perhaps the boldest authority given to TVA can be found in Section 23 of the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, where TVA was given a mandate to improve " the economic and social well-being of the people living in said river basin."
For a contemporary account of TVA, see "Tennessee Valley Authority" in Tennessee: A Guide to the State, compiled and written by the Federal Writers' Project of the Work Projects Administration for the State of Tennessee.