Senator Norris vs. Henry Ford – Prelude to Federal Hydropower

Government Owned Hydroelectric Power

Today there are over 600 Federal hydropower plants located mostly in the Northwest and the Southeast Unites States. Together, these units produce approximately 3% of the nation’s electric supply without emission of any pollutants. Most of the output from these units goes to publicly-owned municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives.

Federal hydropower project
Federally owned TVA Norris Dam

But Federal hydropower and its support of publicly owned utility systems was not pre-ordained. It did not occur until after a brutal 1920s era battle between a Senator from Nebraska and one of the richest men in America.

History of the Mussel Shoals Generating Plant

The Federal Government first got into the power generation business during World War I when it began construction of a hydroelectric generating facility at Mussel Shoals, Alabama on the Tennessee River. The Government intended for the Mussel Shoals electric production to be used at a nearby munitions facility. But the War ended before the munitions plant was completed and the facility was cancelled.

Congress then had to decide what to do with the partially completed generating plant. George Norris, Senator from Nebraska, knew that, in the 1920s, privately-owned electric utilities were not extending service to the very poor rural communities of the Tennessee River Valley.  So residents of those communities were living without the benefits of electricity. Their day-to-day lives were much like the lives of their parents and grandparents in the 18th and 19th centuries. To remedy this situation Norris proposed that the Federal government complete construction of the Mussel Shoals generating plant and deliver the low-cost electricity to the surrounding communities.

George Norris fought for federal hydropower for poor rural residents
Senator George Norris

But Norris received little support from his fellow Senators. This was the era of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. And there was fear that that revolution could come to the United States. The Senators were sympathetic to the argument of the utility industry that Government participation in the electric power industry would bring this country one step closer to Communism. Therefore, Congress solicited bids from private entities seeking to take over ownership of the Mussel Shoals generating plant.

Henry Ford Seeks Control of the Mussel Shoals Plant

The highest bidder was Henry Ford. He promised to use the production from the Mussel Shoals plant to industrialize the Tennessee River Valley. He suggested that the Tennessee River Valley would become a “Little Detroit”. Once Ford’s plans became public, land speculators bought up the land near Mussel Shoals and sold it in small lots to local residents. They thought Henry Ford was going to make them rich.

Henry Ford sought control of the Mussel Shoals hydropower project
Henry Ford

But George Norris was not ready to give up his fight. He did whatever he could to postpone Congress’ approval of Ford’s proposal. Even though he was fighting to bring a better life to the residents of the Tennessee River Valley those residents were more interested in Ford’s promises of economic development than in Norris’ promises of the availability of low cost electricity. During the years of his fight with Ford, Norris received death threats from residents of Mussel Shoals and, whenever he visited the area, he had to be accompanied by an armed bodyguard.

Eventually, Ford grew tired of the fight and withdrew his bid. Congress then sought to make the plant available to privately-owned utility companies. But those efforts never went anywhere because, throughout the 1920s, Norris continued to fight for government ownership.

President Roosevelt Makes Federal Hydropower a Reality

Norris finally got his wish in 1932 when Franklin Roosevelt was elected President. One of the first actions of the Roosevelt administration was enactment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act which provided for the Government to construct a series of dams generating Federal hydropower up and down the Tennessee River Valley.

Symbol of the TVA

Those dams control flooding, improve navigation and produce low-cost electricity for the residents of the Tennessee River Valley. The TVA Act was so successful that it was followed by numerous other Federal laws that provided for the construction of all of the Federal hydropower projects that are currently in operation throughout the United States.

The following videos provide additional information regarding Henry Ford’s effort to develop the Mussel Shoals project:

I. David Rosenstein worked as an attorney and consulting engineer in the electric utility industry for 40 years. When he retired he wrote a book entitled Electrifying America: From Thomas Edison to Climate Change that describes the evolution of the electric industry from the time Edison invented the light bulb until today. Each of his posts in this Blog describe a different aspect of the past, present or future of the electric industry. 

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