Anderson, SC was the first city in the United States to have a continuous supply of electric power and the first in the world to create a cotton gin operated by electricity.
William C. Whitner, a native of Anderson, was largely the man responsible for the place becoming known as “The Electric City.” Born on September 22, 1864, he attended and graduated from the University of South Carolina with a plan to become a lawyer. After his father talked him out of that career, Whitner went back to USC and worked as an assistant to a mathematics professor while studying civil engineering. He graduated from USC for the second time in 1885.
Whitner’s early work was in railroad engineering, but a severe case of typhoid fever forced him into a long convalescence in his father’s home. While there the town of Anderson hired the 26 year old to build a water works systems and an electric plant. In 1890 he completed a steam-driven electric plant. It turned out to be too expensive.
Whitner conceived the idea of generating alternating current electricity using turbulent river water. For advice he went to New York to see Nicholas Tesla, the great Serbian scientist who had perfected the alternating current motor. A turf war was in progress between Thomas Edison, an advocate of direct current, and Tesla, an alternating current advocate.
George Westinghouse, another associate of Whitner’s, supported AC from the sidelines – and later became the big winner in the deal.
Whitner returned to Anderson in 1894 and leased a plant, in McFall’s grist and flour mill at High Shoals on the Rocky River 6 miles east of town, for his newly formed Anderson Water, Light & Power Company. There he installed an experimental 5,000 volt alternating current generator to attempt to generate and transmit electric power to the water system pumps at Anderson’s Tribble Street power and water yard.
It worked, and ended up supplying enough power to light the city and also to operate several small industries in Anderson. The Charleston News and Courier promptly dubbed Anderson “The Electric City.”
In 1897 Whitner’s initial success drew the attention of financial backers, which allowed him to replace the experimental plant with a 10,000 volt generating station at Portman Shoals, 11 miles west of town on the Seneca River. When it was placed in service on November 1, the Portman Shoals Power Plant was the first hydroelectric facility to generate high voltage power without step-up transformers in the nation and perhaps in the world.
These Stanley Electric Company built generators served not only the Anderson water system, the city street lights, other commercial interests and private homes, but more importantly, Anderson Cotton Mill, the first cotton mill in the South to be operated by electricity transmitted over long distance lines.
The Portman Shoals power plant was the start of what became Duke Power (now Duke Energy), one of the largest energy companies in the country.
Thomas Edison and General Electric had refused to wind a motor for high voltage alternating current, but Whitner proved Tesla to be correct. Building upon his early success in Anderson, William Church Whitner developed hydroelectric power generating stations for a number of communities throughout the South, including Columbus, Griffin, and Elberton, GA.
Today, Whitner is remembered in several places of distinction in downtown Anderson, including a statue in front of the Anderson County Courthouse and a street named in his honor. Also, at the corner of McDuffie and Whitner Streets sits Generator Park. On the grounds of this 10,000 square-foot park stands the century-old generator that was operated by Whitner at the Portman Power Plant.