The operations of Wheeler Dam help to cover the infamous Muscle Shoals, the rock formations that had blocked navigation on the Tennessee River. To keep commerce on the river flowing, the lake level can vary only by a matter of feet from winter to summer.
Wheeler Reservoir is named for Joseph Wheeler, a general in the army of the Confederacy, leader of U.S. volunteers in the Spanish-American War and U.S. congressman.
Wheeler is one of nine reservoirs that create a stairway of navigable water on the Tennessee River from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Paducah, Kentucky. Wheeler—along with Wilson and Pickwick reservoirs downstream—helps cover the rocky Muscle Shoals.
Today, Wheeler Reservoir is a major recreation and tourist center. Along with camping, boating and fishing, visitors enjoy the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, located several miles upstream from the dam. The refuge features Alabama’s only significant concentration of wintering Canada geese.
Barge traffic on Wheeler has made it one of the major centers along the Tennessee waterway for shoreline industrial development. Private industry has invested about $1.3 billion in the waterfront plants and terminals at Decatur, Ala., the largest city on the reservoir and a significant inland port.