Powering the South with “White Coal”

William D. Bryan

This is the first in a series of blog posts about the history of energy in the Southeast.

In October of 1867 naturalist John Muir was in the middle of a thousand-mile walk through the South when he met a cotton planter, Mr. Cameron, on his farm outside of Augusta, Georgia. Reclining by the fireplace after dinner, Cameron told Muir, “Young man…I see that your hobby is botany. My hobby is e-lec-tricity.” He predicted that “the time is coming, though we may not live to see it, when that mysterious power or force, used now only for telegraphy, will eventually supply the power for running railroad trains and steamships, for lighting, and, in a word, electricity will do all the work of the world.”

Within three decades, Cameron’s vision had come true. Beginning at the fall line – just miles from his cotton farm – companies harnessed rivers to generate electricity, building dams and stringing transmission lines throughout the South that supplied power for streetcars, factory machinery, lighting, and more. Generating electricity became big business, and the South’s booming energy sector soon outpaced the rest of the nation.

This was nothing short of a revolution – one that would forever change the modern South – and it was founded on the need for a cheap, clean, and renewable source of energy.

When Muir traveled through the South in 1867, “power” meant one thing: running water. Still more than a decade before electricity was first used in cities, machinery was directly powered by steam or water. The agricultural South had few profitable industries, but in the years after the Civil War Southerners boasted that the region’s humid climate and abundant waterpower would be the foundation for rebuilding their economy in the image of the urban, industrial North.

Running water was deemed “white coal” – a source of power that was renewable, did not require costly transportation by rail, and could not be disrupted by unionization efforts or labor struggles in the mines. Waterpower was also clean and did not pollute cities with dark clouds of smoke. As one North Carolinian explained, “There will be no coal to go in, no ashes to go out, no gas, no soot, no dirt.” Because water could be stored behind dams until there was a demand for energy, industry leaders considered hydroelectric power the most efficient use of their waterways. Letting rivers run wild was a waste of the region’s abundant resources, at least in the eyes of the South’s business and political elite.

Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse inaugurated what Tesla called the “Age of Electricity” in 1896 when they completed a powerhouse that generated electricity from Niagara Falls and supplied it to Buffalo, New York. After the promise of city scale hydroelectric power was demonstrated at Niagara Falls, Southerners turned to their running waters to generate electricity. By the 1890s, private efforts to harness the region’s white coal were in full swing.

Tobacco magnate James Buchannan Duke was the industry pioneer in the region. During an examination with physician Walker Gill Wylie – an investor in South Carolina’s Catawba Power Company – Duke was convinced of the hydroelectric potential of the Southeast. With the backing of Wylie, in 1905 Duke purchased all of Catawba Power’s assets and made them the foundation for his newly organized Southern Power Company. Duke explained that his company was intended to prevent the “waste to the sea” from free-flowing rivers by putting the region’s “white coal” to work generating electricity. Within six years Duke controlled a network of four hydroelectric dams and two coal-powered steam plants. The company’s 1,400 miles of transmission lines supplied power to more than 150 textile mills throughout the Carolinas and to Duke’s own electric railway that ferried passengers between Charlotte and Gastonia.

Duke’s work to build a network of dams across multiple watersheds stitched together by long-distance transmission lines was repeated by other companies throughout the region, especially in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas where waterpower potential was highest. Between 1920 and 1930, the South’s electric industry grew by at least 9% each year – well ahead of the rest of the nation – and between 1926 and 1929 half of all the hydroelectric capacity added in the nation came from the South. On the eve of the Great Depression, the South accounted for more than a quarter of the nation’s hydroelectric generating capacity, and one researcher reported that the South “is now, and will continue to be, entirely self-sufficient as to power.”

The power sector was dominated by just a few utilities. After waves of corporate consolidation, by the 1920s 84% of the region’s power was controlled by only seven companies. These utilities worked together to create an interconnected regional network of transmission lines that allowed hydroelectric power to be transmitted to consumers across 3,000 miles of transmission lines covering five states and more than 120,000 square miles. No other part of the country had a grid this advanced, and the region’s “Superpower System,” according to an expert at the time, was “a more complete integration of power-producing and transmission capacity than exists anywhere else in the world.” Where mills had once been tied to the water’s edge, the South’s new electric grid transported power to communities far from the site of generation.

The expansion of electric generation and transmission was not a smooth process, however. Many Southerners were angry when the free-flowing rivers they relied on for food, transportation, and recreation were dammed to turn turbines. Others called out the near-monopolistic control that just a few utilities had over the South’s electric power. By the 1920, 45 states had established regulatory bodies to oversee utilities, especially their power to set rates.

The biggest issue, however, was that the benefits of the cheap electricity flowed unevenly. Utilities provided cities with electricity to power new incandescent lights and streetcars, and by the 1930s most city-dwellers had access to electric power. Businesses also benefitted, and the South’s manufacturing economy boomed as industries migrated to the region looking for cheap power. However, rural areas were cut out of this progress. Even as late as 1932 only 10% of people who lived in the country had access to electricity, widening the cultural and economic gap between city and country.

It took an economic disaster for the South’s rural voices to be heard for the first time. Our next installment in this series will explore how efforts to rebuild the nation’s economy after the Great Depression led the federal government to transform both the regulatory landscape and cultural meaning of electricity in the South in ways that endure today.

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