Before the days of T.V.A. and large power companies, electricity was supplied to rural areas by such imaginative and pioneering men as Arthur Abernathy Miller. In 1925, Miller, a brilliant self-educated electrical engineer, built the first hydroelectric dam in north Alabama — the DeSoto dam in Ft Payne, AL.
Miller had furnished electrical power for two towns in Virginia and one in West Virginia before coming to Fort Payne from Chattanooga in 1921. He knew he had found an ideal location for his plant at this picturesque spot atop Lookout Mountain. His initial goal was to help supply power to his Little River Power Company, later sold to Alabama Power Company, which he constructed below the falls on the west side of the gorge.
After he decided to build his electric plant at DeSoto Falls, Miller’s first problem appeared to be the area’s inaccessibility. There were no roads at all and Miller’s heavy Lincoln mired deeply in the muddy log trail on several occasions before he and Baltimore developer Phiffer Smith built the first road to DeSoto Falls. The road connected the falls with the brow of the mountain, where a road already ran to Valley Head.
Miller hired many local men for the construction of his dam, which was first built to a height of 10 feet. Later various people of the area contributed sufficient funds to raise the dam an additional 10 feet in order to increase the size of the lake.
The heavy diesel machinery purchased by Miller posed a problem, as he was at the south end of town and some distance from the depot. There was no double track to aid in the unloading, and train officials emphatically declared they could keep the train stopped for no longer than 30 minutes. They were certain this amount of time was totally inadequate for unloading such massive equipment. However, after skillful and detailed planning, Miller accomplished the feat in the allotted time.
At first Fort Payne was furnished with electricity from dark until midnight. Then, after a number of local women had purchased electric irons, power was supplied on Thursday afternoons to allow this task. Later electricity was made available all day and night.
As there was no central switch for the street lights, Ernest Wallis, a young school boy, became Fort Payne’s equivalent of the “ole lamp lighter”, riding his bicycle up and down the streets at dusk to turn the lights on and returning after dawn to turn them off.
On many occasions Miller jumped up from his evening meal and rushed through the darkness from his home on the corner of Third and Gault to restore electric service after an incident of power failure. But his worst such experience was to keep the power flowing during a carnival’s visit to town. Every time the merry-go-round made a few turns, all the machinery stopped and the lights went out.
Miller and his partner Smith saw great possibilities in further development of this beautiful area and purchased 300 acres of land surrounding the falls. They formed the DeSoto Falls Development Company, with Smith as president and Miller as secretary and treasurer. Their tract of mountain land was divided into 266 building lots, and plans were made for a community clubhouse and tennis courts. A historic old fortress area below the falls was to be preserved as a park. However the descending Depression years prevented the further development of their park.
Arthur Abernathy Miller’s generator has long been out of commission, but the dam, waterfalls, canyon and reservoir above the dam are now a tourist attraction. A square concrete base still marks the spot where electrical power was generated for Fort Payne, Mentone, Valley Head, Collinsville, AL and Menlo, GA.