With the U.S. entrenched in World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build nitrate plants at Muscle Shoals to produce explosives for the war effort—and a hydroelectric dam to power them both. Construction began on Wilson Dam in 1918, and immediately the region began to see its benefits. Wilson Dams' reservoir curtailed local flooding and tamed the previously impassable Shoals for the first time.
When the war ended, so did the need for a large supply of munitions, and the plants stopped production. Seeing a golden opportunity, auto tycoon Henry Ford eagerly tried to purchase the facilities at Muscle Shoals, seeking to use their cheap electricity in his goal to turn Muscle Shoals into a "Detroit of the South." But George Norris, a Nebraska senator, believed that the dam and its adjacent nitrate facilities could serve a greater purpose for the people of the Tennessee Valley.
Norris argued that the Valley's three major problems—persistent flooding, a lack of electric power and depleted soil due to poor farming practices—could all be addressed by building more dams like Wilson and converting its nitrate facilities to produce fertilizer. While the plan stalled in Congress, the extended debate eventually caused Ford to withdraw his proposal for Muscle
Shoals. Soon, however, the Norris plan for the region caught the eye of a very important ally and would ultimately become the catalyst for the revitalization of the Tennessee Valley.