Thomas Hager’s engrossing new book, Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia, which chronicles the development of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the fight between public and private interests to power the region, is not like the stodgy American history textbooks of childhood we can all remember. There, place names, events, and people of note were in bold-faced text. Images were sparse. And the entire text was devoid of life. This is not the case for Electric City.
Hager is a trained scientist and journalist. His science background is perhaps more evident in his previous books, The Demon Under the Microscope, which tells the story of the discovery of sulfa drugs, and The Alchemy of Air, about the development of fertilizer in the early 20th century; however, it was his invitation to give a talk on fertilizer that lead him to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the opportunity to discover the sparse remains of “Ford City,” crumbling sidewalks and vintage fire hydrants. A city that never was, it turns out.
Muscle Shoals was originally developed by the government during WWI with a dam to power two state-of-the art fertilizer factories, factories which were never used, because the war ended. After 10 years of neglect, American icon Henry Ford set his sights on Muscle Shoals. With Thomas Edison at his side, Ford sought to purchase the Muscle Shoals project from the government to power his factories and electrify 75 miles of utopian city along the river: people would work the factories and the fields, embodying Ford’s romantic notion of agrarian America supported by the promise of technology. Despite his close ties to Presidents Harding and Coolidge, Ford met with resistance from Senator George Norris among others, and ultimately, he walked away from his dreams of the Electric City. In the end, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) took over the Muscle Shoals dam, bringing power and opportunity to the region. The tension between government control and the interests of private corporations has never been so engaging.
Hager’s portrayal of the key players, Ford, Edison, Norris, and David Lilienthal, are revelatory. One appreciates Ford’s innovation and recoils from his virulent antisemitism and megalomania. Edison is a fragile character — more sidekick than innovator — trotted out by Ford to garner support, though Edison admits publicly that he knows nothing about fertilizer. Senator George Norris, appointed chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Forestry where he “would not stir up much trouble,” is adamant that he will not allow Ford to take advantage of the region. Lilienthal, head of the TVA, works hard “elbowing” the private interests away from government projects, a powerbroker in more than one way.
Our social media saturated lives make it difficult to recall that newspapers were once information kings. Electric City puts a reader back in 1930s America. Names like Chicago Tribune, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal are familiar, but Hager references the Dearborn Independent, Youth’s Companion, New York Tribune, Florence Times and others, in addition to including political cartoons, the more sophisticated and artful memes of their day.
A willingness to conjecture sets Hager apart from many of his contemporaries. In the last chapter, he poses the question, “If Henry Ford’s bid had been accepted, would his seventy-five mile city have done more good than the government did with the TVA?” The answer is of course complex, but Hager’s strong handle on history as well as current events makes for a satisfying ending.
That this “Electric City” was only ever a dream does not detract from Hager’s masterful storytelling and keen eye for details that bring history to life. You will wonder why we had to read all of those dry history textbooks back in school.
Electric City: The Lost History of Ford and Edison’s American Utopia
By Thomas Hager
Published May 18, 2021