A Look Back: When the Lights Came On

Posted by | February 18, 2013

The following article by Linda Barden of the Rabun County Historical Society appeared in the December 2012 issue of Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine.  It is reprinted here with permission.

 

When the Tallulah Falls hydroelectric plant began generating electricity in 1913, it was among the first such plants in the United Sates. Georgia Railway and Power (which later became Georgia Power Company) built the Tallulah Falls plant to provide power for their streetcar system in Atlanta. The company soon followed with the construction of additional dams on the Tallulah River in Rabun County: Burton dam in 1919, Mathis Dam in 1924, and Nacoochee Dam in 1926.

Tom Roane's power plant on Stekoa Creek south of Clayton, GA circa 1915.

Tom Roane’s power plant on Stekoa Creek south of Clayton, GA circa 1915.

So it is interesting to note that Rabun County’s first electrical power did not come from Georgia Power, but instead from a local entrepreneur. In fact there was not sufficient local demand for Georgia Power Company to run lines. Thomas E. Roane built his own hydroelectric plant on Stekoa Creek.

Roane applied for a charter in 1908 under the name of Clayton Light and Water Works Company. By 1914, he had run power lines to Clayton and was serving more than fifty businesses and homes. In the next decade, Mr. Roane realized that his plant was not able to supply the demand for electric current in Clayton, and he made arrangements with Georgia Power to connect with their lines in Lakemont. The connection was made in July of 1927, which allowed Mr. Roane to buy current from Georgia Power as needed. He sold his company to Georgia Power in December 1928.

In September of 1929, Georgia Power completed running its own lines to Rabun, assuring residents and businesses in the county of all the electricity they needed. In that same month, street lights were installed in Clayton.

Estatoah Falls in 1925, several years before the power plant was built at the base of the falls.

Estatoah Falls in 1925, several years before the power plant was built at the base of the falls.

Meanwhile in the northern part of Rabun County in September 1928, a group of citizens met and agreed to build a hydroelectric plant to serve the city of Dillard and the surrounding community, including the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. Another local resident, J.B. McCrary, built the dam and generating plant on Mud Creek at the base of Estatoah Falls north of Dillard. His engineering company bore the expense of building the plant, and the citizens of the community agreed to pay for building the lines from the main trunk line to their residences and businesses. They began soliciting customers in January 1929.

The plant, known as Rabun Land and Water Company, served the community for decades, and was purchased by Georgia Power Company in 1960. The purchase included the dam and powerhouse, 59 miles of distribution facilities, two full-time employees, and a 1960 Chevrolet pickup truck. Now called Estatoah, the plant continues to generate electricity for Georgia Power. It is by far the smallest Georgia Power hydro plant, but it continues to be a reliable source of electricity for the residents served on its distribution lines.

Into the 1930s in Rabun, as well as other areas in Georgia and the United States, electricity was still only available to city residents. In 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to establish the REA as a full-scale agency of the government for the purpose of loaning money to cooperatives and other groups to build rural power lines. Habersham Electric Membership Cooperative was formed in 1938 in order to bring electricity to the rural areas of Habersham, Hall, White, Stephens, Rabun and Lumpkin counties. It is a non-profit member-owned cooperative. Forming a cooperative was necessary, because at that time it was not profitable for the investor-owned power suppliers, such as Georgia Power, to build power lines to the farm families spread out in the rural areas.

Clayton, GA's main street in 1910, showing Mr. Roane's recently installed primitive power lines.

Clayton, GA’s main street in 1910, showing Mr. Roane’s recently installed primitive power lines.

The newly formed co-op hired the engineering firm, J.B. McCrary (the same company that built the Estatoah Plant), to build their power lines. The first 70 miles of line were energized in Habersham, Rabun and White counties on May 15, 1939. Even with these advances, it was still decades before all the remote rural areas had electricity. The most recent was in 1972 when, following a ten-year campaign, electric power lines were finally brought to Tate City.

 

This little composition was included in the letter that Rabun Land and Water Company sent to homes and business owners encouraging them to get “wired up and connected.”

Let Estatoah Do Your Work
Electric Service on Tap
It’s now ready for you night and day, springing to the task from the electric generator at the foot of Estatoah Falls.
The kilowatts you hear so much about are YOUR SERVANTS. They banish drudgery. They bring convenience, comfort, ease, cheer, and joy to your home.
Let these silent and unobtrusive servants work for you. They’re always ready to leap to the task. They never rest or talk back. They’re tireless, day and night, Sundays and holidays, every hour of every day of every year.
Make your home bright with electric light. Now you can afford the electric servant that will make your home brighter, more cheerful, happier.

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