Alabama Power Company’s Gadsden Steam Plant 100th anniversary, Part 2

By Danny By Danny "The Vagabond" Crownover

For the next few weeks, the Messenger and The Vagabond are partnering with Alabama Power Company for the 100th anniversary of the Gadsden steam plant. The Vagabond has contacted Alabama’s famous historian, Leah Rawls Atkins, for her expert information. Leah wrote a comprehensive 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 Leah’s book and research from The Vagabond’s files, we will show that Gadsden and its area was important in the starting of Alabama Power Company.

William Patrick Lay

William Patrick Lay was born in Cherokee County on June 11, 1853. Captain Lay was the son of Capt. Cummins Lay and a grandson of Capt. John Lay. His father and grandfather were local heroes, legendary river men who operated flatboats and steamboats on the upper Coosa River.

Lay grew up near a gristmill, and as a young boy during the Civil War he spent hours watching the wheel turn, dreaming about what else falling water might accomplish. Lay was far more a businessman than the title “Captain” implied, but he carried it with pride all his life.

In 1870 Lay moved to Gadsden to pursue his lumber business. Six years later, he married Laura Josephine Hollingsworth, daughter of Major W.P. Hollingsworth. Lay was a bookkeeper, lumberman, steel man (among other occupations) and the owner of both a hotel and the first electric light plant in Gadsden.

In 1902-03, Lay constructed a small dam and hydro plant at the old We-sson Mill on Big Wills Creek to supply electricity and water to the city of Attalla. In 1903 Lay sold the plant before it was completed, as he explained, “to devote my entire time to the Coosa.”

Although it was three years later when Lay incorporated Alabama Power Company in Gadsden on Dec. 4, 1906, Attalla has proudly claimed to be the birthplace of Alabama Power. Certainly, out of Lay’s dream to harness the Coosa River came Alabama Power Company.

In 1890, Lay helped organize the Coosa Alabama River Improvement Association to convince the federal government to open the Coosa River for navigation from Mobile to Gadsden. Dams would flood the miles of shoals above Wetumpka, covering the rocks and rapids with slack water, while locks would pass boats up and down the river.

Precedent gave hope for federal investment to improve Coosa navigation. In the western part of Alabama on the Black Warrior River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made studies in the 1870s of 17 dams and 18 locks.

Construction began in 1895. This mammoth Warrior-Tombigee project was underway at the same time that Lay was lobbying for navigational improvements on the Coosa River.

The Warrior River’s system of locks and dams was completed in 1915, in time for iron and steel from the Birmingham district to be shipped to support America’s efforts in World War 1.

In the meantime, Lay and his friends pressed for Coosa River navigation. They admitted that Gadsden was no Birmingham yet argued that the city could be if the region had cheap water transportation to the Gulf of Mexico. The Corps of Engineers had no plan to capture the falling water for hydro generation at the Warrior River ‘s Lock 17.

For decades, water spilled 72 feet over that dam, flowing to the sea unused. Cooperation was needed between private enterprise interested in hydro production and the federal government, which was constitutionally charged with improving navigation on the nation’s rivers.

At the turn of the century, Lay studied government surveys provided by Alabama senator John H. Bankhead, Sr. Using his personal knowledge of the Coosa River, Lay decided to focus on the site where the government proposed to build Lock 12.

Lay pushed ahead with two challenges – obtaining the federal approval he needed to build a dam on a navigable stream and finding the funds to do so. He lobbied the Alabama congressional delegation, once hosting a meeting on the river aboard the Leota. Everyone Lay talked to favored the project but no one came forth with any federal money, venture capital or even a plan. With his son Earl and friend and attorney O. R. Hood, Lay incorporated the Alabama Power Company on Dec. 4, 1906. With Lay as the first president, it would become the company into which James Mitchell eventually consolidated all the smaller power companies and the one destined to serve the state’s people into the 21st century.

The Gadsden group acquired titles and options on lands around Lock 12, and Captain Lay carefully crafted a bill that would give the company the right to construct a waterpower dam on the Coosa River at the location where Lock 12 appeared on the Corps of Engineers survey The simple, short bill had strong support from Alabama’s congressional delegation, especially John L. Burnett of Alabama’s seventh district.

Lay avoided a debate over the merits of low versus high dams by not mentioning the dam’s height. The law allowed the company “to build a dam of such height as the Chief of Engineers and the Secretary of War may approve.” A 72-foot dam had once failed and made Congress cautious about approving high dams.

Thirty minutes before Congress adjourned the 1906-07 sessions, the bill passed its final legislative hurdle and was signed by President Theodore Roosevelt on March 4, 1907. When it came time to secure approval for the dam plans, Lay had to reveal that his dam would be 75 feet high. The Secretary of War and chief engineer balked until Lay pointed out that this dam was being built with private money, and that the government would lose nothing if the dam failed. Lay also noted that the site was in an isolated area where there were no people nearby if it should fail.

Alabama Power Company’s initial $5,000 capital was quickly depleted by legal fees and land purchases, but E. T. Schuler of Gadsden’s local electric street railway system put up more money, and clearing of the construction site began in 1910.

In the fall of 1902, Lay began construction of a small hydroelectric generating plant at the site of Wesson Mill on Big Wills Creek, just northwest of Attalla. The plant was constructed, in Lay’s words, “First to supply the City of Attalla with electricity; second, to pump water into a tall stand pipe which would furnish Attalla with water, and third, to demonstrate the possibilities and economy of hydro electric power for which I had been contending for a number of years preceding.”

When the plant was completed, a line was strung from the 75-horsepower turbine driven generator, over the mountain to a light on a pole in the heart of Attalla. Lay himself threw the switch, bringing electricity to the community.

Lay sold the Wesson Mill property in Attalla in November of 1904 to A.L. Dupre and wife, J. R. Brown and wife and Adophus Brown and wife, all of Attalla, who on the 4th day of November 1904 formed a corporation called the Etowah Light and Power Company. The company operated until 1915, when Captain Lay purchased the corporation to become the fourth company under an umbrella as The Alabama Power Company.

Gadsden’s Captain William Patrick Lay could well be recorded as the greatest industrialist to hail from Northeast Alabama. His foresight was unbounded, his dreams unswerving and his outlook realistic. In another context, he might have been a Carnegie, Vanderbilt or Rockefeller.

Lay’s rare knack for making dreams come true is responsible for some of Gadsden’s vast industrial strides. It was his idea to bring the steel plant to Gadsden. Lay also had a hand in the establishment of the Printup Hotel and the railway from Gadsden to Anniston. Most importantly, Lay led the idea to build a system of storage dams in the headwaters of U.S. streams and to organize the Alabama Power Company.

Next week: more on Alabama Power Company in Gadsden.

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