Lay Dam has rich history

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By Bill Tharpe

At the end of the 19th century, Alabama was an agricultural state. Houses were lit by candles, kerosene or gas lamps and many folks went to bed when it got dark. A few industries and towns had dynamos that provided street lighting and limited electricity. Montgomery and Birmingham had electric streetcars. But a few Alabama dreamers had a vision of turning the state’s rapids and shoals, which for decades had blocked riverboats, into sites for hydroelectric dams. 

On Dec. 4, 1906, Gadsden entrepreneur and steamboat captain William Patrick Lay founded the Alabama Power Company and began plans to build a dam near the site of Lock 12 on the Coosa River. Lay acquired congressional approval to build the dam, cleared the site and had plans and engineering studies made. But like others with similar dreams of developing the hydro potential of Alabama rivers, he could not find investment capital in the state, nor could he interest Wall Street in such a risk. 

In 1911, James Mitchell, a Massachusetts-raised engineer who had spent 17 years bringing electricity to Brazil, came to Alabama to see a potential dam site at Cherokee Bluffs (now Martin Dam) on the Tallapoosa River. 

After visiting this site and other potential hydro sites in Alabama, Mitchell devised a bold plan. He would create a holding company, the Alabama Traction, Light & Power Company, acquire the undeveloped hydro sites on Alabama rivers, build them in a logical sequence, construct a transmission system to connect them all and create a statewide electric power system that would later be expanded to surrounding states. Mitchell reduced this plan to a map, and presented it, along with a prospectus, to Sperling & Company Ltd., a London investment firm with whom he was associated. Sperling approved his plan and provided the initial financing to put his plan into action. 

One of the companies Mitchell acquired was Lay’s Alabama Power Company. On May 1, 1912, Lay transferred ownership of his company to Mitchell and his associates, saying, “I now commit to you the good name and destiny of Alabama Power Company. May it be developed for the service of Alabama.” 

Because of legal problems surrounding plans to build at Cherokee Bluffs, the decision was made to develop Lay’s dam site at the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed Lock 12 site on the Coosa River as the new company’s first hydro plant. The choice was a good one, but there were challenges. When Lay obtained congressional approval to build a dam at Lock 12 in 1907, it was stipulated that the dam must be completed by March 4, 1914. Since it was already 1912, work had to begin at once to complete the project on time.

Mitchell selected engineer Eugene Yates to manage the project. Yates was to play an important part in the development of Alabama Power and the integrated system of generating plants that would, years later, become the Southern Company. Appointed chief engineer in 1912, Yates organized the engineering and construction forces for designing and building Lock 12. Since there was no construction company in Alabama that had the expertise to build a plant so large and complicated, Mitchell and Yates selected MacArthur Brothers Company. Although there were problems, the New York company completed the project on time. 

Building the dam was a monumental task. The site was 14 miles from Clanton, the nearest town. Before the first coffer dam could be built, before the first concrete could be poured, a workers village had to be constructed. Laborers by the hundreds had to be located. 

Once hired, these laborers began to construct the camps where they would be housed and fed. They had to clear the land, survey and grade the roads, lay the rails, build and fill storage facilities, blast quarries, crush rock, find sand and gravel, and all of this had to be done before work on the plant could begin. Besides this, an infirmary, schools, churches, dining and recreational facilities for both black and white workers and their families had to be built. At the height of construction, the village at Lock 12 was the largest community between Montgomery and Birmingham.

Construction began in the summer of 1912, and over the next two years the dam began to take shape. As construction progressed, transmission line crews cleared rights-of-way, constructed transmission towers and strung lines that would connect the dam to towns, cities and rural areas. The Lock 12 dam was completed and the reservoir was filled by Dec. 31, 1913. On April 12, 1914, the first unit began generating electricity and the Lock 12 dam began sending power to industrial, commercial and residential customers in central Alabama.

The young Alabama Power Company learned from its experience at Lock 12 and made changes to make the villages better for workers. Workers and their families noticed these changes and appreciated the way the company treated them. Many began to develop a loyalty to the company and, as a result, when one project was completed they signed on to the next and soon found themselves permanently employed. From these experiences grew a feeling of connection and family that one can sense when talking with retirees and villagers who grew up at the dams.

“We dam folks stick together,” said Jim Murphy, who grew up in the Lay village. 

The feeling of family that first began to grow in the company villages has become part of the Alabama Power culture that exists today and has helped form the values that are now a part of “Southern Style.” 

In 1929, the board of directors of Alabama Power unanimously resolved to change the name of the Lock 12 dam. On Nov. 23 that year, as the Goodyear blimp circled above the dam and the obligatory barbecue was served, the first dam built by Alabama Power was named in honor of its first president, William Patrick Lay.

Construction to redevelop Lay began in 1964 and was completed in February 1967. Six new generating units were placed in service and the height of the dam was raised 14 feet. Lay Dam is classified as a gravity concrete dam. It is 2,260 feet long and 129.6 feet high. The dam contains 343,985 cubic yards of concrete. The powerhouse has six hydraulic turbines and generators producing 29,500 kilowatts each. 

“When Captain Lay made the statement ‘May it be developed for the service of Alabama,’ he could not have imagined all the aspects of life that the dam and lake provide today,” said Herbie Johnson, general manager of Hydro Services. “Not only is Lay Dam a critical part of providing peaking power and value to our customers, it has a great impact on the region’s economic development, many forms of recreation and all the businesses that provide support.” 

Bill Tharpe is the archivist for Alabama Power Company. 

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