The Vagabond – Gadsden’s early electricity

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By Danny Crownover

From the day in 1879 when the Sells Brothers Circus exhibited an electric light in Gadsden as a feature attraction to the present electricity has played an important role in the region’s growth.

In 1887, the first steam powered electric plant was built in this area when such things were still in the experiment stage.

In 1888, the first industrial motor was installed to drive the machinery of a tiny corn meal mill of a local grocery store. Shortly thereafter, the owners of that store installed an electric motor to run their large flour mill.

With the organization in 1906 of the Alabama Power Company by Captain W.P. Lay, his son, Earl, and his attorney, O.R. Hood, the entire community began to catch the vision of great things through the development of the Coosa River for power, flood control and navigation.

Gadsden’s great steel mill, rubber plant and cotton mills would have been handicapped without such electric power.

In fact, most of them would not have been possible.

The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company’s Dixie Plant would not have come here without available electricity. The Dwight and Sauquoit and Kahn Cotton Mills could not have made progress.

When all operations were about to be abandoned for good at the steel mill and its backers had quit, Captain Lay asked for a new survey of the situation by a group of experts. The New York firm of Coverdale & Colpitts was secured, and it eventually recommended that the plant not be dismantled but that certain holdings in other communities be eliminated so more capital could be supplied.

The firm recommended an expenditure of $2,500,000 for that purpose and that electric power be substituted for steam. When area bankers balked, James Mitchell, who had succeeded Captain Lay as president of the Alabama Power Company, offered to put up $500,000 of the proposed capital outlay. W.H. Cloverdale became president of the Gulf States Steel Company.

The Gadsden Steam Plant was built in 1912, and the Alabama Power Company later built a $12,000,000 electric generating plant in East Gadsden, which went into operation in 1949.

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