Excerpt: Southern Water, Southern Power, by Christopher J. Manganiello

manganiello_southernWhy has the American South—a place with abundant rainfall—become embroiled in intrastate wars over water? Why did unpredictable flooding come to characterize southern waterways, and how did a region that seemed so rich in this all-important resource become derailed by drought and the regional squabbling that has tormented the arid American West? To answer these questions, policy expert and historian Christopher J. Manganiello moves beyond the well-known accounts of flooding in the Mississippi Valley and irrigation in the West to reveal the contested history of southern water.

In the following excerpt from Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region (pp. 47-50), Manganiello tells the story of a southern power company that did not wait for the demand for hydropower to emerge, but instead created their own market.


After 1900, New South energy companies invigorated the process of mill and town building that William Church Whitner contributed to in the 1890s in the upper reaches of the Savannah River valley. Numerous companies—including the independent Tennessee River Power, Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Duke Power, and other smaller companies—planned and developed multiple-dam and sometimes multiple-purpose projects across the region to redirect river energy to factory hands and machines. “Water power,” Rupert Vance declared in Human Geography, was “the one unifying force underlaying industrial development” in the southern Piedmont.[1] Vance observed this development through North Carolina’s James B. Duke (1856–1925), and Duke Power Company was among the first and most successful corporate enterprises to couple waterpower and industrial development. Dr. Walker Gill Wylie (1849–1923), a South Carolina native, New York City physician, president of the Catawba Power Company, and Whitner’s former business partner, presented the self-made American Tobacco Company king with the idea of developing a series of hydroelectric dams and reservoirs on the Catawba River.[2] Together, Wylie and Duke tapped William States Lee (1872–1934), a Citadel graduate and engineer who had previously worked alongside Whitner at Portman Shoals and who had completed Wylie’s Rock Hill (S.C.) Catawba Power Company hydroelectric project in 1904, to provide the technical know-how.[3] Not unlike other company founders who merged technical skill, river knowledge, and financial resources, the Duke trio started building a system in 1905 and within six years had linked four hydroelectric plants (three on the Catawba River) and two auxiliary coal-fired steam plants in the Carolina’s Piedmont.[4] By then, Duke Power Company’s Catawba (Lake Wylie) and Great Falls projects stored water behind dams before turning falling river water into energy for distribution over 700 miles of transmission lines to reach more than 100 cotton mills.[5]

James B. Duke did not wait for markets to emerge to justify massive capital investments in hydropower; he cultivated industrial consumers. Duke’s company, and other companies that followed, had never envisioned providing service to rural or residential customers. Instead, as Duke historian Robert Durden has demonstrated, Duke invested directly in new textile mills or subsidized the electrical conversion of old mills to use electric equipment to ensure a market for his company’s electricity and to attract New England’s manufacturers to the Southeast. Industrial sociologist Harriet Herring, one of Vance’s Chapel Hill colleagues, concluded that Duke Power “became a veritable Chamber of Commerce in advertising the advantages of the area for manufacturing.” Duke Power’s influence was “more positive and concrete than any Chamber of Commerce,” in Herring’s opinion, since the company could “offer attractive inducements to potential customers” in the days before public utility commissions regulated utility rates and service areas. In another example of Duke’s influence, one company subsidiary, the Mill Power Supply Company, provided low-interest loans and ample credit to mill owners who abandoned the on-site steam plants they originally used to generate energy and converted to using energy produced and delivered by the Duke network. Duke Power executives were formidable economic players eager to feed the Piedmont’s industrial base with energy derived from a changing southern waterscape.[6]

So why did Duke and his contemporaries in the Southeast initially cast their lot with white coal instead of rock coal? The Northeast and Rocky Mountain West had turned to fossil fuels—heavy fuel oil and coal—before and after the American Civil War as canal, railroad, pipeline, and coal mining operations shared corporate ownership and evolved in tandem.[7] Southeastern energy history was equally complicated and for different reasons. Pennsylvania, Alabama, and southwest Virginia miners cut bituminous coal for southern railroads, municipal waterworks, the metallurgical industry, the electric industry, and other heavy manufacturing regions stretching from the Carolinas to Texas that were coal and oil poor before the 1890s. New energy sources soon emerged as the clear winners in the early twentieth century, leading these regions to turn to alternative fossil or organic fuel sources. For example, Los Angeles and Houston declared energy independence from expensive coal imports from Canada, Australia, and Pennsylvania and tied their economic futures to locally available heavy fuel oil or natural gas after 1900.[8]

Southeastern railroads, factories, and homes certainly burned Alabama coal between 1890 and 1925, but coal was not yet king.[9] Alabama was the only major coal-producing state south of Tennessee and Virginia, and in 1900, Alabama produced a mere 8.3 million tons of coal when national production hovered just under 270 million tons. By 1929, Alabama had increased production to 17.7 million tons when national production surpassed 600 million tons.[10] And, Alabama’s coalfields primarily supplied the state’s Birmingham-centered metallurgical industry. At least one transnational railroad executive considered Alabama coal supplies unreliable and “of uneven quality” as locomotive fuel.[11] Other southern cities, from Atlanta to Charlotte, were hamstrung by coal’s freight costs, particularly when post–World War I global demands sent the price of coal sky-high after 1919. Coal costs and fuel efficiency were frequent topics among Georgia railroad managers, whose company publications implored white and black employees to monitor their own coal handling.[12] Furthermore, the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century coal sector was plagued with labor strikes and by poor management. For example, the coalfield wars and United Mine Workers’ organized national strikes in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Alabama between 1890 and 1920 affected coal production, shipments, and markets.[13] In this context, coal supplies, deliveries, and costs were unpredictable when workers went on strike. This volatile muscle-powered and mineral-fueled market helped New South capitalists make a choice and shift from soot-producing coal as a primary energy source to a renewable organic energy environment that eliminated some variables. The new fuel in the Southeast was the old waterpower transformed into slick hydroelectricity generated with white coal.


From Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region, by Christopher J. Manganiello. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Christopher J. Manganiello is an environmental historian and policy director at Georgia River Network. His book Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region is now available.

  1. [1]Rupert B. Vance, Human Geography of the South: A Study in Regional Resources and Human Adequacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1932), chap. 12 (“Piedmont Crescent of Industry”), esp. 281.
  2. [2]Robert F. Durden, The Dukes of Durham, 1865–1929 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1975), 177–83.
  3. [3]“A Hydro-electric Power Development on the Catawba River, near Rock Hill, S.C.,” Electrical World and Engineer 44, no. 4 (July 23, 1904): 129–32; Augustus Kohn, The Water Powers of South Carolina (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans, and Cogswell, 1911), 82–83.
  4. [4]Robert F. Durden, Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas: The Duke Power Company, 1904–1997 (Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), ix–x, chap. 1. The companies I will call Alabama Power, Duke Power, and Georgia Power throughout this chapter changed names though consolidation, new ownership, incorporation, or holding company transfers throughout the twentieth century. These names will be used for simplicity and to illustrate the current corporations’ histories. Today, Georgia Power is one of four companies—including Alabama Power, Gulf Power, and Mississippi Power—under the umbrella of the Southern Company (established in 1945). Duke Power was initially known as the Southern Power Company (established in 1904 and having no affiliation with the current Southern Company), became Duke Power in 1924, merged with Progress Energy in 2012, and is currently known as Duke Energy. For corporate histories, see Wade H. Wright, History of the Georgia Power Company, 1855–1956 (Atlanta: Georgia Power Company, 1957); Jack Riley, Carolina Power and Light Company, 1908–1958: A Corporate Biography, Tracing the Origin and Development of Electric Service in Much of the Carolinas (Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards and Broughton, 1958); Durden, Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas; Martha Elrod and Julie Groce, Energizing Georgia: The History of Georgia Power, 1883–2004 (Macon, Ga.: Indigo Custom Publishing, 2004); Leah Rawls Atkins, “Developed for the Service of Alabama”: The Centennial History of the Alabama Power Company, 1906–2006 (Birmingham: Alabama Power Co., 2006); and Dub Taft and Sam Heys, Big Bets: Decisions and Leaders That Shaped Southern Company (Atlanta: Southern Company, 2011). Duke did not invent the term “white coal,” which was already in global circulation. David Blackbourn charts a history of water, energy, and nationalism in Germany during the 1890s, where “‘white coal’ was cheap, clean, hygienic, and modern, not like smoky, sooty coal.” See chapter 4, “Dam-Building and Modern Times,” in Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York: Norton, 2006), esp. 201 and 219.
  5. [5] C. A. Mees, “Development of the Rocky Creek Station of the Southern Power Company,” Engineering Record, Building Record, and Sanitary Engineer 59, no. 14 (April 3, 1909): 462–69, esp. 462.
  6. [6]Durden, Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas, 20, 33; Harriet L. Herring, [J. Herman Johnson,] Rupert B. Vance, and T. J. Woofter Jr., A Survey of the Catawba Valley: A Study Made by the Institute for Research in Social Science for the Tennessee Valley Authority, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill: Institute for Research in Social Justice at the University of North Carolina, 1935), 1:1, in the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. See also Thorndike Saville, “The Power Situation in the South Appalachian States: The Development of Power Systems of the Southern Province,” Manufacturers’ Record 91, no. 16 (April 21, 1927): 68–77, esp. 68. Alabama Power also “manufactured” the company’s initial industrial and commercial customer; see Taft and Heys, Big Bets, 20–22. Georgia Power also expressed little interest in rural lines because the investment could not be recouped from farmers; see Henry M. Atkinson, “The Relation of Electric Power to Farm Progress: Georgia’s Need—More Industries and Less Politics,” address before the Eighteenth Annual Farmers’ Week Conference, Athens, Ga., January 28, 1925, 19.
  7. [7]Recent energy histories focus on coal as a critical fuel in Colorado and the mid-Atlantic; see Thomas G. Andrews, Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), and Christopher F. Jones, “A Landscape of Energy Abundance: Anthracite Coal Canals and the Roots of American Fossil Fuel Dependence, 1820–1860,” Environmental History 15, no. 3 (July 2010): 449–84. David Nye offers the best synthetic treatment of U.S. energy history: Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
  8. [8]James C. Williams, Energy and the Making of Modern California (Akron: University of Akron Press, 1997); Joseph A. Pratt, “The Ascent of Oil: The Transition from Coal to Oil in Early Twentieth-Century America,” in Energy Transitions: Long-Term Perspectives, ed. Lewis J. Perelman, August W. Giebelhaus, and Michael D. Yokell (Boulder, Colo.: American Association for the Advancement of Science and Westview Press, 1981), 9–34, esp. 21; Joseph A. Pratt, “A Mixed Blessing: Energy, Economic Growth, and Houston’s Environment,” in Energy Metropolis: An Environmental History of Houston and the Gulf Coast, ed. Martin V. Melosi and Joseph A. Pratt (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007), 21–51, esp. 26–33.
  9. [9]“What About ‘Old King Coal’? Is He ‘On the Way Out’?” Right Way Magazine, October 1936, 4–5.
  10. [10]Vance, Human Geography, 307.
  11. [11]Edward L. Doheny, a U.S. investor in the Mexican Central Railway, began exploring Mexican oil fields in 1900 looking for better fuel to replace poor quality Alabama coal; see Jonathan C. Brown, “Jersey Standard and the Politics of Latin American Oil Production, 1911–30,” in Latin American Oil Companies and the Politics of Energy, ed. John D. Wirth (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 8.
  12. [12]W. A. Kline, “Hooverize the Coal Pile,” Right Way Magazine, August 1920, 25, 29.
  13. [13]Wayne Flynt, Poor but Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989); W. David Lewis, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994); Andrews, Killing for Coal, 179.