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Martin Dam has been powering the state since 1926

Erin Harney

(Contributed)
James Mitchell, who envisioned hydroelectric development on the Tallapoosa River. (Contributed)

In November 1911, James Mitchell stood on a high ridge called Cherokee Bluffs, overlooking the Tallapoosa River.

While the locals valued the spot as a favorite for picnicking, with panoramic views in all directions, Mitchell recognized the opportunity and potential for hydroelectric development. To Mitchell, this was “one of the finest dam sites” he had seen.

This was no idle compliment, because Mitchell was well-known in the hydroelectric industry. He had established the Rio don Larges Dam in Brazil and scouted hydroelectric sites in Japan for London’s Sperling & Co., an investment banking house.

Mitchell was described as “an indefatigable worker, resourceful,” who “demonstrated an unusual engineering ability and adaptability.” In addition, through his work with Sperling, Mitchell mastered corporate finance and securities. In 1911, Sperling sent Mitchell to the U.S. to look into developing power sites in the South.

A quick decision

Cherokee Bluffs was named for Native Americans who had come to Alabama during the Creek Indian War of 1813-14 and remained following the Creeks’ defeat. In 1896, rights to the site were acquired by Henry Jones, J.S. Pinckard and Jack Thorington. In 1900, they organized the Cherokee Development and Manufacturing Co. and, with $50,000, began developing dams downstream from Cherokee Bluffs and upstream from Tallassee. In 1910, the Cherokee Bluffs site was purchased by Henry Doherty.

(Contributed)
Company surveyors at the Cherokee Bluffs site on June 4, 1923. (Contributed)

There are conflicting stories as to who recommended Mitchell come to Alabama, with both Paul Brady of Westinghouse and Charles Baker, associated with railroads and New York-based utilities, claiming credit. However, once in Alabama, Mitchell saw the potential of the rivers and sought to coordinate power generation in an integrated river network.

Tallapoosa native Nora Miller promoted the development of Cherokee Bluffs. She was quoted as saying “it took Mitchell only 15 minutes” to decide to invest in the site. He wanted to begin development at Cherokee Bluffs because a dam there would be less expensive, relative to the high production of electricity it would yield.

Enter Tom Martin

Mitchell scheduled a meeting at the law office of Massey Wilson, who, along with his colleague, Tom Martin, had previous involvement with the site. When Mitchell called on Wilson, he instead found Martin, an Alabama native who was familiar with the waterways and the legal status of many of the state dams, and had the social and political connections that Mitchell would need to be successful.

(Contributed)
Spillway construction begins at Martin Dam in 1925. (Contributed)

At that time, six groups of investors were active in the Alabama hydroelectric scene. Mitchell knew these companies could not individually offer the cheap, dependable service he intended to provide.

As Mitchell and Martin worked to purchase the smaller companies and merge operations, they encountered roadblocks. The first was funding. While Mitchell had the financial support of Sperling, several New York investors including S.Z. Mitchell, who grew up in Dadeville, attempted to block the British investors from financing the effort.

Second, there were three dam sites and a bridge that would be affected by Mitchell’s proposed dam at Cherokee Bluffs. Henry Doherty owned one of the dams and settled quickly with Mitchell. The relocation of a bridge owned by Central of Georgia Railroad was also quickly accomplished.

The other two settlements took longer to resolve. Textile baron Benjamin Russell owned the second site, north of Cherokee Bluffs, called Buzzard Roost Shoals, that would be flooded by Mitchell’s dam. It took nearly a week of meetings in New York before Mitchell and Russell reached a settlement.

The third dam, downstream at Tallassee, was owned by the Mount Vernon-Woodberry Cotton Duck Co. It was the most challenging and time-consuming settlement. Legal action was taken against Woodberry in January 1912, but there was no settlement in sight.

Development begins

Since Mitchell was working with borrowed money and the Mount Vernon-Woodberry lawsuit was ongoing, Mitchell turned his attention to Lock 12 on the Coosa River. Alabama Power, headed by William Patrick Lay, owned that site. Mitchell and his associates purchased the company, and the rights to Lock 12, in 1912.

(Contributed)
Alabama Gov. William W. Brandon speaks at the cornerstone exercises at Cherokee Bluffs on Nov. 7, 1925. (Contributed)

Mitchell directed construction of the Lock 12 dam, the completion of Gadsden Steam Plant and construction of Gorgas Steam Plant. Mitchell died in 1920 before development of the Cherokee Bluff site on the Tallapoosa began.

In 1922, Martin was finally able to move forward with the Tallapoosa River developments. The Federal Power Commission issued preliminary permits for the Alabama Interstate Power Co., one of Mitchell’s umbrella companies, to develop the Tallapoosa. The license for Cherokee Bluffs was granted on June 9, 1923, and construction began on July 24.

Cherokee Bluffs was isolated and difficult to reach, with hilly and rocky terrain and no roads or railroads near the site. The nearest rail line was 5.3 miles away in Asberry, and a company spur track was developed for materials to reach the site. Alabama Power’s Dixie Construction was put in charge of the project.

The flagship dam

Dixie Construction began by building a village for the construction workers. The remoteness of the site required a large commissary, organized leisure activities and entertainment for the workers.

(Contributed)
The Martin Dam powerhouse. (Contributed)

The village, known as the “city of Cherokee Bluffs,” had 332 structures and a population of about 3,000, making it the largest city in the Tallapoosa Valley. After the dam was finished in 1926, the company converted the village for use by the workers who operated the dam.

At that time, Martin Dam was the largest construction project undertaken by Alabama Power.

“Martin Dam was the flagship of the Alabama Power hydroelectric system, with the dam and powerhouse beautifully constructed, and able to produce an enormous amount of electricity,” said award-winning author and company historian Leah Rawls Atkins.

The 168-foot dam was the highest in the state when it was completed. The pressure created from the height of the dam and the force of the water led engineers to design a pool at the base of 12 of the spillway gates to break up the energy before the water continues downstream, which is a distinctive feature of the dam.

Martin Dam Superintendent Billy Bryan. (Contributed)
Martin Dam Superintendent Billy Bryan. (Contributed)

The right name

Martin Dam today is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Lake Martin, with Superintendent Billy Bryan and his staff giving tours weekly.

Bryan, superintendent since 2011, said the “powerhouse at Martin Dam makes it unique within the system, because of its detailed brickwork, tiled roof and physical size.” The powerhouse is similar in design to Alabama Power’s 1925 Corporate Building. Archivist Bill Tharpe researched those similarities but was unable to confirm use of headquarters’ architect Warren, Knight and Davis in building Martin Dam.

In November 1925, a ceremony was held to lay the dam cornerstone. A year later, the dam and lake were dedicated to then-APC President Martin. “Tom Martin’s humility kept earlier dams from bearing his name,” Atkins said. “However, his name really belonged on this dam.”

At that time, Lake Martin was the largest manmade lake in the world, covering 40,000 acres with a shoreline of more than 700 miles. The dam went into service on Dec. 31, 1926.

Nine decades of service

Today, Martin Dam is operated by seven employees and managed by Bryan and David Waites, hydro manager of the Tallapoosa River.

(Contributed)
The interior of the Martin Dam powerhouse. (Contributed)

“Martin Dam employees never stop working,” Bryan said. “The operation and maintenance of the plant is continuous.”

Waites said Bryan takes “satisfaction in the work that he and his employees do to repair and maintain the equipment” at the dam. With more than three decades at Alabama Power, Waites has witnessed many changes in technology and the operation of dams. He is struck by the “culture of information-sharing between workers that has developed at Martin Dam. The open, collaborative atmosphere has made Martin a reliable, low-cost dam with a good strong record.”

As Martin Dam celebrates 90 years in operation, hydroelectric power remains a valuable source of electricity for Alabama, while Lake Martin serves as one of the largest tourist destinations in the state. The dam and lake are testament to the dedication and foresight that Mitchell and Martin had in developing electricity and industry, while promoting progress and advancement for the people of the state.

“Martin Dam was the dream of the founders; it was going to make the company,” Atkins said.

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