Huntsville's Technological Evolution: A Technical History of Greater Huntsville, Alabama from 1800 to the Present

Huntsville's Technological Evolution: A Technical History of Greater Huntsville, Alabama from 1800 to the Present

by Jr. Ph. D. Watson P. E.


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Huntsville's Technological Evolution: A Technical History of Greater Huntsville, Alabama from 1800 to the Present by Jr. Ph. D. Watson P. E.

Huntsville's Technological Evolution
A Technical History of Greater Huntsville, Alabama from 1800 to the Present here have been many books written about the historical development of Huntsville and Madison County, Alabama. Most of these have centered on the cultural aspects, and there has certainly been much of importance from this standpoint. Others have diverse emphases; one masterpiece of the early 1970s - A Dream to Remember, in multiple volumes by James Record - is a highly detailed history of Madison County government. However, it is the author's opinion that the technological evolution of Greater Huntsville provided the foundation on which this region stands - and, until now, this has not been given an end-to-end treatment.
This book is divided into five eras; these and the approximate dates covered are Origins and Maturing (1800-1890); Manufacturing (1890-1949); Rocket City (1949-1970); Diversification (1970-2000); and Present and Beyond (2000-?). There is also a Prologue and an Epilogue, both included as an integral part of the text.
In addition to documenting the technological evolution in a series of eras, a major attempt was made to cite the individuals and groups that made it happen. Greater Huntsville - a term for the city and much of the surrounding Madison County that was adopted when the city limits were not enlarged as needed - is now primarily a Federal Government metropolis. Correctly, the political aspects of this are acknowledged, and detailed information about the many agencies and associated contracting firms are included, but the people deserve and are given full credit. There are about 1,150 individuals noted in the book - covering over two centuries

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781490765532
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 11/13/2015
Pages: 496
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.11(d)

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Huntsville's Technological Evolution

A Technical History of Greater Huntsville, Alabama from 1800 to the Present

By Raymond C. Watson Jr.

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Raymond C. Watson, Jr.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4907-6553-2



The 19th century – 1800 through 1899 – is the originating and maturing period of Huntsville and Madison County. To cover the history – particularly the technological evolution – of this area in this extended period, the information has been divided into the four segments: Early Times, King Cotton, Transportation and Utilities, and Maturing Times. To an extent, these are also time periods, but there is considerable overlapping.


The area eventually containing Madison County was in the region called Ah-la-bama by the native Muscogee (also called Creek) Indians who occupied the lower portion of the region; in their language, Mvskoke, this was a phrase meaning, "We will rest here." There is little recorded as to the first exploration of this area – some historians believe this was by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto in 1540. French maps from the late 17th century show a large traversing river looping south and then north around the area – later called the "Great Bend" – certainly indicating early French explorations (the town of Mobile was formed by the French River first appears on maps of the late 18th century; it is believed to have come from Tanasi, a Cherokee Indian village.


The area in North Alabama adjacent to the Tennessee River is commonly called the Tennessee Valley, herein simply "the Valley". The Cherokee Indians were the first well-identified inhabitants spread across the Valley, but in about 1650, they withdrew from the region to an area in the mountains to the northeast, reserving the flat portions of the Valley as a large hunting ground. Shawnee Indians then moved southward from around the Cumberland River and occupied land in the Valley. This led to many years of warfare between the Cherokees and intruding Shawnees. The Chickasaw Indians from the western portion of the Valley eventually teamed with the Cherokees, and by the early 1720s, the Shawnees had been driven northward into the Ohio River area. Then for almost half a century, the Tennessee Valley was without permanent occupancy.

In about 1765, some of the Chickasaws moved into an area near the Tennessee River in what is now the southern portion of Huntsville, and formed a large settlement. This was challenged by the Cherokees, and they attacked their former allies. In 1769, there was a major battle at the Chickasaw settlement; the Chickasaws won, but at such a great loss that they withdrew from the settlement. Thereafter, the area of the abandoned settlement was known as the Chickasaw Old Fields (a square with about three-mile sides); this became a benchmark for future divisions of the land.

Through the following three decades, both tribes claimed the land on both sides of the river, westward to the Buffalo River, and eastward to the great ridge dividing the waters of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. The United States recognized both claims.

As the overall territory developed, the Chickasaw nation became in debt to the White traders and merchants, and also needed funds for local improvements. In the Chickasaw Treaty, signed 23 July 1805, the land between the east boundary and a direct line running at about 45 degrees northwest from the Old Fields to the ridge near the main source of the Buffalo River was ceded to the United States. For this, the Chickasaw nation was paid $20,000, the debt of $2,000 was settled, and the Chickasaw king, Chinubbee Mingo, was to be paid an annual annuity of $100.

Similarly, in the Cherokee treaty of 7 January 1806, all their territory north of the Tennessee River and west of a line drawn from the upper part of the Chickasaw Old Fields northerly to the Elk River, was ceded to the United States. For this, the Cherokee nation was paid $10,000 and the Cherokee chief, known as Black Hawk, was to be paid an annual annuity of $100. In addition, a grist mill would be built in Cherokee country, and a machine for cleaning cotton (a hand-powered cotton gin) would be provided; these showed that many of the Cherokees had become farmers.

The triangular tract of country acquired by these two treaties became the original Madison County of 1808. For the next two decades, the Indians lived peacefully in the land adjacent to Madison County. Then, under the Indian Removal Act passed by Congress on 28 May 1830, Indians from five tribes in the southeastern United States, including the Cherokees and the Chickasaws, were forced to move to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma). The Cherokee people called this journey the "Trail of Tears."

Overall, the Cherokees were the most advanced of the native Indian nations across the Southeast. Even before the arrival of European explorers, their villages often contained full houses. As described later, Cherokee warriors joined Andrew Jackson and U.S. troops in defeating the Creek Indians in 1814. The Cherokees had a written language (a syllabary) developed by George Guess/Gist (Chief Sequoyah) between 1809 and 1824. By 1830, when forced from their homelands, most were literate in their own language – Holy Bible translations, other books, and newspapers were published using the syllabary.


Before 1800, there was confusion as to which State or Territory owned the land in the region containing the Great Bend of the Tennessee River. The first officially recorded exploration of the area by Americans was in 1777. North Carolina had given "bounty land" to its Revolutionary War veterans and, believing that the region was their territory, sent a group to examine land along the river up to what is now Muscle Shoals. The group, however, was driven out of the area by Chickasaw Indians who felt that they were losing land already agreed for them.

In 1780, a band of some 160 persons, led by John Donelson in 30 flat-bottom boats, came by the area without incident on the Tennessee River. They passed through the shoals, eventually joined the Cumberland River, and then went upstream to settle Nashborough (later named Nashville) in 1784. Earlier, Donelson and James Robertson had travelled overland from Watauga (the first settlement in what is now Northeastern Tennessee) to establish a stockade on the banks of the Cumberland River in 1779; Donelson then returned to Watauga and formed the pioneering party. At that time, the land around present-day Nashville was in North Carolina (it became Tennessee in 1796).

The Georgia Legislature declared the region that is now Alabama and Mississippi to be in their Territory in 1783. For the next two decades, speculators formed companies for dividing and selling this land. One such group, in what was later called the Great Yazoo Fraud, gained the blessing of the Georgia Legislature to pay the State $500,000 for over 21 million acres (approximately the size of England, Scotland, and Wales). The Tennessee Land Company, owned by this group, started selling thousands of acres in this area to buyers who had never even seen the land.

By the Treaty of Madrid, in 1795, Spain ceded to the United States the lands east of the Mississippi between 31°N and 32°28'N. In 1798, Congress organized this district as the Mississippi Territory, with the Territorial Governor's office at St. Stephens, a few miles north of Mobile

Georgia eventually surrendered its claim in 1802, transferring to the United States an area that later became Alabama and Mississippi. The Mississippi Territory extended its boundaries in 1804, taking in the eastern portion of this new land, including that along the Tennessee River. The previous land sales, however, were considered legal; recorded in a deed dated 11 July 1808, Martin Beatty of Lee County, Virginia, had paid $1,000 for 1,000 sight-unseen acres that included all of the land of the early settlement around the big spring that is at the heart of present-day Huntsville. Such land sales remained on the books until Congress passed an 1814-Act appropriating $5 million to settle all Yazoo-related claims. Beatty relinquished his title to the big-spring land at that time.


Following the Revolutionary War, President Thomas Jefferson proposed a system for use in the United States in mapping and controlling the land. All areas not specifically under a warrant to an individual or other private entity was designated Public Land, owned by the United States and potentially available for sale. To handle this, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS) was devised to divide all of the land (public and private) into townships, primarily squares six miles on the side. Townships, in turn, are divided into 36 square sections, each being one mile on the side and containing 640 acres. Sections, in turn, are usually divided into quarter-sections of 160 acres, these into quarter-quarter sections of 40 acres, and finally into lots of various size and shape.

The selection of 640-acre townships as a standard was to allow up to seven divisions by two (halvings) but still retain a whole number of acres. A half of a quarter-quarter-quarter section is five acres, which is a readily surveyed 50-square-chain area. (A chain is a measuring tool 66-feet long, then 80 chains equals one mile.) To identify the location of townships, sections, and their subsections, rectangular grids are used. For these grids, horizontal baselines and vertical meridians were established, with the designated Center Point being the crossing of the Principal Meridian and a Base Line.

After the Mississippi Territory expanded, the Federal Government used the PLSS to map the southern half of this region in 1805, and then followed with the northern half in 1807. For the northern half, the Base Line was the Tennessee border at Latitude 34°-59'-27", and the Principal Meridian – later called the Huntsville Meridian – along Longitude 86°-34'-16". All land in Madison County is mapped into townships, sections, and quarter-sections measured from this 1807 Center Point. Settlers mainly came into the area along a southward path that was near the same as the Principal Meridian.

When the U.S. Congress established Tennessee as a State in 1796, they set the southern border to be exactly the 35-degree north latitude. The first official mapping (in 1818) used multiple observations with a marine sextant and published tables called ephemerides to place a border benchmark at a location near a place called Nickajack Cave. Thereafter, this benchmark was used to locate all borders in the region. With improvements in measurement instruments and processes, this benchmark, and thus the border, was eventually settled to actually be at the above-cited 34°-59'-27" – 33" or about a mile south of the intended 35o! Through the years, the band generated by this difference has been a disputed area for taxes, voting, water rights, and other matters. The decisive fact, however, is not where surveyors meant to draw the line – it is where people have accepted the line to be over time.

Madison County

Madison County, in the Mississippi Territory, was created by the Territorial Governor on 13 December 1808. It was named for James Madison, then Secretary of State and President-elect of the United States. Both Cherokee and Chickasaw Indian tribes had originally claimed the area as hunting grounds, but any villages were gone by this time. The initial area – defined by the Chickasaw (1805) and Cherokee (1806) Treaties – was about 25 miles wide at the top along the Tennessee border; some 30 miles in straight-line length, but tapering down on each side following the original Cherokee and Chickasaw boundary lines (to the east and west, respectively); and ended at the bottom at the Chickasaw Old Field with about three miles along the Tennessee River. This encompassed roughly 540 square miles (near 345,000 acres). Land areas were added several times, and then redefined through 1887; finally giving Madison County a total of 806 square miles (515,840 acres) and its present shape.

A geographical survey of Madison County was made for the Federal Land Office and conducted by the official territorial surveyor, Thomas Freeman of Nashville; this was completed in May 1809. Freeman, who had learned surveying as an officer in the U.S. Army, had earlier surveyed the Meridian Line running through Madison County.

The established practice of surveyors at that time involved observing the pole star (Polaris) to find true north at the Center Point, then using a vernier compass (a magnetic compass with two vertical sights) mounted on a tripod and a Gunter's chain (a 66-foot-long metal chain of 100 links; 80 chains then equals 5,280 feet or a mile). Through this practice, a surveyor could find the desired path and set up markers at corners of townships and sections.

The basic art and science of surveying is ancient; it was known to the early Greeks and Romans, as shown by their roads and aqueducts. Because of the fundamental value of land, surveying was one of the first occupations in most states to require official recognition. At age 17, before the Nation was formed, George Washington became a recognized surveyor, serving for some time as the official surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia. Washington, who had no formal higher education, learned surveying from the book, The Young Man's Companion: Or Arithmetick Made Easy, by William Mather, 1737.

It is noted that the technology used in surveying greatly changed in the early 19th century. A telescope was added above the vernier compass, and a finely divided circular scale allowed accurate horizontal angular measurements – with other minor improvements, this became the theodolite. Although this instrument was relatively expensive, it was quickly adopted by professional surveyors. It is possible that Freeman used a theodolite in his geographical survey of Madison County.

While making the land survey, Freeman also took the first census of Madison County; released in January 1809, it showed the total population to be 353 heads of families, with 1,150 free White males. 723 White females, and 332 slaves. Many people had come into the new land, although orders were to wait for the public land sale.


As previously noted, at the start of the 19th century there were no Indians permanently living in the area that eventually became Madison County. White settlers began to arrive at this time, all intent on obtaining rights to land that had previously been Indian territory.

It is believed that James ("John") Ditto (1743-1828) was the first settler in the area that is now lower Madison County. Ancestry documents indicate that he arrived at Chickasaw Island (now Hobbs Island) on the Tennessee River in 1802. Some believe that Ditto had come down overland through the Big Spring area, but it is more likely that he had drifted down the river on a small flatboat, possibly accompanied by his wife and several of his grown sons and carrying goods for trading with the Indians.

Unverified documents indicate that Ditto opened a trading post beside the river in 1805, and then started a ferry service for crossing the river in 1807. This river-bank site was later called Ditto's Landing. Ditto also started a boatyard, building flatboats with a shallow draw for carrying goods down the Tennessee River and past the shoals.

In 1804, Isaac Criner (1783-1876), his uncle (or brother?) Joseph Criner (1767-1843), and Thomas McBroom (1784-1843), all from East Central Tennessee, followed a trail that would later be the Winchester Road to explore the area just below the Tennessee border – a distance of at least 175 miles. Explorers such as these were normally on foot, carrying a minimum load for survival in the wilderness. They certainly carried a flint-lock musket and likely had a pocket compass – a very common and relatively inexpensive device – and used this to maintain direction and identify the return path. The musket and compass then might be considered the first new technologies introduced to this area.

After returning to East Tennessee for their families, the Criners and McBroom came back in early 1805 – likely with their possessions in a horse-or mule-drawn wagon. The Criners built log cabins near what is now Mountain Fork of the Flint River; later settlers named this community New Market, considered to be the earliest town in Madison County. McBroom travelled further southeast a distance of about 20 miles, settling his family near what is now Gurley.


Excerpted from Huntsville's Technological Evolution by Raymond C. Watson Jr.. Copyright © 2015 Raymond C. Watson, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Prologue, 1,
Ch. V – PRESENT and BEYOND, 351,
The Author, 440,
Index, 441,
Image Sources, 469,

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