cover image Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia

Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia

Thomas Hager. Abrams, $28 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4796-0

Hager (Ten Drugs) delivers a diligent history of the “Detroit of the South”: a plan by Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to build a 75-mile urban corridor along the banks of the Tennessee River in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama. In 1918, the U.S. government started construction on a hydroelectric dam and two nitrate plants in the area to ensure that the national supply of nitrate (a critical ingredient in fertilizer and munitions) would not be disrupted during WWI. But the war ended before the dam could be completed, and government funding for the project dried up. In 1921, Ford and Edison offered to lease the dam and use it to power a sprawling, futuristic city that would be run entirely on electricity and bring millions of jobs to the area. Hager recounts breathless media excitement for the proposal, but Nebraska senator George Norris blocked it in Congress, arguing that it was an attempt by wealthy elites to profit from a public resource. Ultimately, the completed dam helped power the Tennessee Valley Authority’s rural electrification program in the 1930s. With incisive character sketches and insights into the tension between private and public interests, this is an illuminating portrait of a little-known chapter in American history. (May)