Tuscumbia [†] is a vibrant community unique for its small town character and southern hospitality. Tuscumbia's rich historic and cultural assets have made it a national tourist destination for decades and have created a prosperous and diverse community committed to preserving their heritage, while encouraging positive growth. Tuscumbia's beautiful historic neighborhoods, quaint downtown district, and historic city park have provided Tuscumbia with a solid foundation and direction for future growth and development.
First a Chickasaw village named Oka Kapassa, which means Cold Water, was established around 1770 on the west bank of Spring Creek, about one mile west of present day Tuscumbia. The village traded with the French and served as a military center to protect Cumberland Mountain settlements from Indian attacks. By 1787, the village belonged to the Cherokee and was later destroyed by General James Robertson. In 1802, General Wilkerson made a treaty with the Chickasaw Indians to build the Natchez Trace, a road which ran from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee, and passed 20 miles west of Tuscumbia, Alabama. Prior to 1815, present day Colbert County was a battle ground for Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Shawnee Indians.
In 1815, the first white settlers, Michael Dickson and his family, came to the area by navigating up the Tennessee River to Cold Water Creek and then to Big Spring. Dickson built his log cabin on the bluff above the spring, which he had purchased from the Chickasaw Chief Tashka Ambi. For five dollars in silver and two pole axes, he purchased all the land between the Big Spring north to the Tennessee River. Dickson was later given the choice of several lots in lieu of his "tomahawk claim" from the chief when the U.S. government acquired the land in 1816. This land purchase included all of the area north and south of the Tennessee River. In 1818, the U.S. Government acquired all lands north of the 35th parallel between the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, which encouraged other families to move into the area. David Keller, grandfather of Helen Keller, was among the new settlers.
On December 20, 1820 the area was officially incorporated as a town by the Alabama Legislature and the name was changed to Tuscumbia on December 31, 1822. Tuscumbia is an English mispronunciation of the Choctaw- Chickasaw words Yashka Ambi, or Tashkambi, which translates as "the warrior who kills."
The county containing Tuscumbia is named after George Colbert, who was Chief of the Chickasaws and managed the affairs of the Native Americans. He was the son of an Indian Princess and a French trader. Colbert ran the ferry at Cherokee across the Tennessee River and was a recognized U.S. citizen. The western area of the county was commonly called "the Nation", since most of the Native Americans lived there. In 1825, the U.S. Government adopted the removal policy of the Native Americans in the southeast, which included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Creek, and Seminole. The historic migration route, known as the Trail of Tears, passed through Tuscumbia and extended west through Colbert County to the Tennessee River. It was reported in the Tuscumbia Patriot newspaper in November 1827, that the citizens of Tuscumbia welcomed the Native Americans to Spring Park where they fed and clothed them. For this kindness, it was said that the Indian Nations would always remember Tuscumbia. In the Treaty of 1832, the Chickasaws turned over their lands to the U.S. Government, who sold the land to the public. Chief Colbert's sons and daughters married into county families and some remained in the area when the chief was forced to move west.
The Tuscumbia Railroad was the first railroad west of the Allegheny and was started in 1831 and completed in 1834. It ran from Tuscumbia to Decatur, Alabama and eventually was renamed the Southern Railway. The railroad was needed in order for river traffic to avoid the dangerous and often unnavigable shoals of the Tennessee River. Before the railway, horse drawn cars were the earliest form of transportation in the area. These cars ran from Tuscumbia Landing on the Tennessee River into downtown Tuscumbia. Cotton was shipped to New Orleans via the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers. Merchants in Tuscumbia sold fine merchandise, corn, and grain to the surrounding areas in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The railroad is still in operation today and serves as a vital link between the Shoals and Decatur. Other transportation methods included streetcars that ran through downtown Tuscumbia carrying passengers to and from the city of Sheffield. Seven adjoining brick buildings on the north side of Fifth Street were constructed in the 1830's and were known as Commercial Row. They extend from Water to Main Street and are in use commercially today. The Parshall House, a recognized hotel, was located near one of Tuscumbia's two depots and across from Commercial Row. Prior to the Civil War it was called the Franklin House.
Tuscumbia was very pro-Confederate during the Civil War and was part of Franklin County at the time of the war. Both southern and northern armies marched through Tuscumbia during the four year war and Tuscumbia was occupied many times by Union forces. Union soldiers camped at the fairgrounds north of Big Spring and stabled their horses in the churches of the town. The Union Calvary Commander, General Florence Cornyn, had headquarters at a home in Tuscumbia bought by General John D. Rather at the close of the war. The house was eventually named Locust Hill and is located on South Cave Street. At the time of Cornyn's occupation, Union forces commanded by him burned LaGrange College, Alabama's first charted college located east of Tuscumbia near Leighton, Alabama. This college composed, the 35th Alabama regiment of infantry and had gone to war leaving few behind to fight. The northern troops destroyed other homes in the area such as the Hogun Plantation in retaliation for General Forrest's defeat of the Yankees at the Battle of Town Creek. The majority of the soldiers served with General Roddy, "the defenders of north Alabama", under the command of General Forrest. There is a group of nameless confederate soldiers buried at Oakwood Cemetery. The graves are marked by small granite stones inscribed "C.S.A." These stones were placed there by the Tuscumbia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.) in the 1890's. During the same time a confederate monument was erected by the U.D.C. on the courthouse lawn.
Brigadier General James Deshler of Tuscumbia, a graduate of West Point, was killed at the age of 31 at the Battle of Chickamauga. Major David Deshler, his father, brought the body back for burial in Oakwood Cemetery. He gave the land for the Deshler Female Institute (now Deshler High School) to be built in the memory of his son.
Colbert County divided from Franklin County just after the Civil War and Tuscumbia was chosen as the county seat. The County Commission first assembled in the Horn House Hotel, located on the corner of Fifth and Main Street, which is still in commercial use today.
The Colbert County Courthouse was built in the 1880's.
Helen Keller was born in Tuscumbia in 1880 and is known as America's "First Lady of Courage."Her family homestead, Ivy Green, was built in 1880 and is located on North Commons Street.
The music heritage of Tuscumbia and the Shoals was born in 1912 when Florence, Alabama native, W.C. Handy, published "Memphis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues", which established a music genre within popular American culture. He later becomes known as the "Father of the Blues."
World War I began in 1917 and brought new growth and job opportunities to Tuscumbia with the construction of a munitions plant. The United States needed nitrates for ammunition and explosives for the war. This prompted President Woodrow Wilson to approve the building of two nitrate plants and a dam to supply needed electricity for the production. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created as a result of Roosevelt's "New Deal" and construction of Wilson Dam soon followed from 1918-1933. Construction of Wilson Dam employed more than 18,000 workers at its peak. Poverty stricken, the region led the nation in categories like illiteracy, lowest per capita income, and the unavailability of running water and electricity. After the dam's construction, rapid industrialization and economic diversification swept the valley. In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority brought electricity to rural Northern Alabama. This allowed the region to develop water works, power systems, and telephone service.
The electrification of rural Alabama brought a new awareness of the outside world to the Tennessee Valley. A nationwide radio audience was presented with a new genre from the rich regional music of the Shoals Region. In 1951, Dexter Johnson established the first Shoals area recording studio in Sheffield, Alabama. Additional studios began to open in the 1950's including Shoals Recording Services, Tune Publishing Company, Judd Records, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and FAME Recording Studio. Great artists such as Aretha Franklin, the Osmonds, the Rolling Stones, Bob Segar, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, and Lynyrd Skynard all recorded hit songs in the Shoals. In 1952, Shoals native Sam Phillips founded Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. Sam would later discover Elvis Presley, B.B. King, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
The area saw industrial growth in the 1950's with Reynolds Metals Company and Union Carbide Metals, who after the end of World War II, converted to peace time productions. Diamond Shamrock Company, Ford Motor Company, and many others also located in Colbert County. These factory jobs caused a population growth in the Shoals area and contributed to the residential and commercial development of Tuscumbia, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Florence. The area became commonly referred to as the Quad Cities.
The introduction of automobiles in the 1920's allowed for individual transportation no longer dependent on transportation by rail. This led to industrial development outside of the urban center, or downtown. This steady decentralization of growth and development away from downtown Tuscumbia began in the 1950's and continued for four decades. With the construction of highways came urban sprawl, shopping centers, malls, and big-box retail centers. While adjacent communities like Muscle Shoals and Florence were growing and thriving, downtown Tuscumbia was in decline. Many of the historic buildings of the downtown gradually became empty and dilapidated. By 2000, Tuscumbia looked like a ghost town. Saddened by the condition of his hometown, local resident and entrepreneur, Harvey Robbins, determined in 2000 he would spend his time and resources in the restoration and revitalization of Tuscumbia. In addition to restoring many of the buildings downtown, he also reconstructed Spring Park and is currently building a new hotel to accommodate the increased tourism. His efforts have inspired other business owners to restore their properties for an attractive and inviting downtown district. As a result, the city has experienced a complete face lift over the past five years. For the first time in 40 years, city revenue, retail businesses, and property values are rising. Commercial development in Tuscumbia has increased and the community as a whole is excited and eager to participate in Tuscumbia's renaissance of the future. These are exciting times for the City of Tuscumbia and it is the goal of city officials and the community to compose a future plan for their city. It is the hope of the planning commission that the enclosed plan will maintain this positive growth and foster new growth and development.
† Tuscumbia Comprehensive Plan, Northwest Alabama Council of Local Governments (NACOLG), 2005, accessed November, 2021.
Nearby Towns: Muscle Shoals City • Sheffield City •