Alabama Power Company’s Gadsden Steam Plant 100-year anniverary, Part 1

By The VagabondBy The Vagabond

For the next few weeks the Messenger and The Vagabond will partner with the Alabama Power Company for the 100th anniversary of the company’s Gadsden steam plant.
    The Vagabond contacted Alabama’s famous historian, Leah Rawls Atkins, for her expert information.
    Leah wrote a very thick book on Alabama Power Company a few years ago called Developed for the Service of Alabama, The Centennial History of the Alabama Power Company 1906-2006. It is a must-read, fabulous book.
    From this book and research from The Vagabond’s files, we will show that Gadsden and its surrounding area was important in the starting of Alabama Power Company.
    Way back in 1879, electricity was first “demonstrated” at Sills Brothers Circus.
    It was not being produced commercially at that time in Gadsden; it was just for show. It is not know just how the electricity was shown.
    But eight years down the road in 1887, the idea of electricity permanently lighting the town of Gadsden came into being when the Electric and Gas Company was formed.
    By the next year in 1888, the company was producing electricity for the community. The company employed W.P. Lay as the superintendent and produced Excelsior lights for the streets and incandescent lights for buildings.
    For the record, the first electricity produced in Alabama was in 1882 when the Woodstock Iron Co. in Anniston used some surplus steam from its furnaces to turn a generator and light the streets of the workers’ company village.
    Three Gadsden men were most responsible in creating Alabama Power Company to what it is today – Colonel Reuben Mitchell, Captain William Patrick Lay and attorney and Colonel O.R. Hood.
    These men will be discussed now and in the coming weeks.
Reuben Alexander Mitchell
    In 1865, with the defeat of the South in the Civil War just a few months past, Reuben’s mother, Elmira Sophia Jordan Mitchell, died. (Her name was to be remembered when it was given to Alabama Power Company’s Jordan Dam.)
    Reuben and his younger brother Sidney were sent to live with their grandmother, Ann Spivey Jordan, on her Coosa County farm.
    The widowed grandmother was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, a resilient woman 66 years of age who ran her large farm with the help of a few former slaves who had remained on the Jordan place.
    The boys grew up working on the farm, plowing fields behind a mule and hunting in the woods around the Tallapoosa River, in some ways as idyllic boyhood, yet one shaped by the South’s defeat and the poverty of the Reconstruction period.
    Ann Jordan gave her grandsons discipline, a strong work ethic, and a good education, tutoring them herself to supplement the local school.
    In later years, Sidney Mitchell told the story of his grandmother giving him “a large field of cleared land and a mule,” explaining to him “that by my own efforts I must fight my way in the world and earn enough to clothe myself and pay my way through the country school.“
    In 1879, Reuben’s brother Sidney, also known as S.Z., was nominated to the U.S. Naval Academy.
    He passed his examinations and left his raccoon-hunting dogs, horses and native Alabama behind.
    Although the land and the people remained always in his heart, except for short visits Sidney never returned to the state to live.
    In 1883, Sidney Mitchell went to sea aboard the USS Trenton.
    His assignment was to install an incandescent lighting system aboard ship, the first in the U.S. Navy.
    The technology was primitive and not dependable, but Sidney became fascinated by electricity, an interest that was to dominate the rest of his life. From there Sidney moved to New York City and observed the new electric lights.
    He sought out and took a job with Thomas A. Edison. From there Sidney established a company and built a generation plant and distribution system.
    While S. Z. Mitchell was establishing a life in electricity on Wall Street, his older brother, Reuben, stayed at home and tried to survive the hard times of post-Civil War Alabama. Reuben attended local schools, clerked in a family grocery store in Dadeville, worked in the cotton mill in Columbus, Georgia, and was the postmaster of Opelika.
    Perhaps encouraged by his brother, in 1888 Reuben became general manager of the electric street railway system in Montgomery.
    Two years later, Reuben moved to Gadsden, where he was involved with land development, banking and textile manufacturing. Reuben also bought the 250 acres of Noccalula Falls Park property and held it for many years with the stipulation that someday it became a park owned by the City of Gadsden.
    Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer appointed Reuben a colonel on his staff, and thereafter Reuben was known as Col. Mitchell or simply, “the Colonel.”
    Later, as a vice president of Alabama Power Company and member of the board of directors from 1918 to 1937, Reuben would push commercial sales and represent the company in various ways.
    The two Mitchell brothers became pioneers in early utility development in Alabama.
    They held some ownership in companies in Decatur, Huntsville, Talladega, Anniston and other communities.
    The Mitchell brothers are credited with building the very first transmission line in the state, connecting Talladega, Anniston, and Gadsden.
    The Mitchells’ Alabama utility assets would eventually become part of Alabama Power.
    In fact, these operations would be the first income-producing assets for Alabama Power’s holding company.
    Both Mitchell brothers would eventually serve on the Alabama Power Company board of directors.
    The brothers, having grown up in the Tallapoosa and Coosa Valleys, knew those rivers.
    Reuben was working in the Coosa River city of Gadsden when Alabama Power Company was incorporated.
    When the story of the Alabama Power Company began in 1906, Sidney was just getting settled on Wall Street and Reuben was a banker in Gadsden.
    Surely, in the process, they hoped – no, they expected – in the quintessential dream of American capitalism – to secure their own financial future, if any capital could be found.
    But in Alabama at this time, that was absolutely a gamble.
    Next week: Capt. William Patrick Lay
 

 
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