FROM DARKNESS INTO LIGHT
HISTORY OF GUNTERSVILLE ELECTRIC SYSTEM
Information for this history was taken from the Guntersville Democrat and the Guntersville Advertiser.
Once the sun went down over Guntersville, Alabama, the town was clothed in darkness until the sun came up the next morning. That is until January of 1903. The town officials met with Capt. J. B. Curry of Huntsville, Alabama, who was the representative of an acetylene plant.
An agreement was entered into and this company provided a generator, laid the mains, and equipped twenty streetlights and three hundred twenty-five candlepower burners for the town. The cost was around $1.25 per month for each light. Thus, the beginning of Guntersville creeping out of darkness.
Evidently the acetylene generator worked successfully until December of 1907. As town marshal, Stallings was charging the generator, the large cylinder exploded with great force, burning Marshal Stallings over his head and hands. The explosion also set the building on fire and it was a total loss. The lights went out!
The town officials decided the time had come to try another method of lighting the town. In January of 1908 they negotiated with the Alabama Harness Company regarding lighting with electricity, but the deal did not go through. The editor of the Democrat suggested that the town buy a dynamo and install it at the pump station and that by pumping at night the same fuel could be utilized to supply both water and lights.
During January of this same year there was a group of men in town making efforts to organize a stock company for the purpose of lighting with electricity. They had several meetings, which were open to the public.
It was not until April of 1910 that the stock company officially organized with Dr. D. C. Jordan as President, J. H. Carter, Vice-President, and Alex Gilbreath, Treasurer.
From 1910 to December of 1914, many different franchises were examined which caused great concern for the public. The editor of the Democrat expressed his concern that the town officials were in danger of making too may concessions.
Then there was a breakthrough! The Alabama Power Company was granted a franchise at a regular meeting of the Guntersville City Council on July 05, 1915. Under the franchise, the company was to have their plant in operation within one year. The rates would be the same as those in Gadsden, Anniston, Huntsville, and Decatur.
There was a question as to whether a plant would be erected in Guntersville or the line extended from Gadsden. The Alabama Power Company would try to make a deal with Boaz and Albertville to extend the line, but, if that could not be done, a power plant would be erected in Guntersville. This contract and other contracts were made to light the streets and pump the water. These contract negotiations were the most forward steps the City Council had ever taken in order to develop the area.
Contracts between the City Council and the Alabama Power Company were signed on July 19, 1915, for lighting the streets and for pumping water. They were for a period of ten years.
Forty 100 watt street lamps were to light the main street from North Town to South Town. The electric motor and pump would cost the town $1500.00. The City Council was so proud that this would make Guntersville one of the best-lighted towns of its size in the state. Power was turned on to Guntersville in October of 1915. The editor of the Democrat made the statement that when this was done, the town of Guntersville became a city.
After power was turned on, the Marshall County Commissioners met and decided to have the county courthouse, located in Guntersville, wired for electric lights. A suggestion was made through the Democrat that there be a big electric clock placed in the courthouse tower, which was done.
By December of 1915 the electric lights were up and running, but they were not perfect. Upon several occasions after turning on the lights they went out and left the city in total darkness for about 30 minutes. The editor of the Democrat said, "they left us where Moses was when the lights went out."
In December 1916 the Alabama Power Company found it necessary to erect an immense water tower on the highest hill in Guntersville. This site later became known as Reservoir Hill. The tower was erected for the purpose of supplying the powerhouse in case the pumps failed. The city had been having considerable trouble with the lights failing. It was thought that this reserve of water would settle the problem. Alabama Power Company opened an office and supply room behind the Citizens Bank of Guntersville, located on the corner of Worth and Broad Streets. It was stocked with an ample supply of electrical fixtures for customers.
The machinery, which had been installed in 1915, was found to be inadequate for the work it had to do. In June of 1916, a new 85 horsepower engine and generator replaced the old equipment. But, alas, the new machinery did not do the job! In November the editor of the Democrat made the statement "electric lights are more irregular than the old oil lamps." It seems the lights would flare up as bright as fire then drop again until a person could hardly read under them.
Great news came to customers in February of 1917 when it was announced by Alabama Power Company that rates would drop from 12 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The editor of the Democrat was very critical in the January 1918 edition of the paper when he said, "Guntersville was called a typical backwoods burg. The light plant could not run because there was no water and the city was dark as Egypt, dry as the Sahara, and cold as Spitzburger." But, everything was back to normal the next day.
During this time period the Marshall County Fair was the most important event of the year. People came from all parts of the county to display their wares, see new inventions, and have fun. In October, just as the fair was getting into high gear, the water supply to the electrical power plant failed.
Eichelberger Brothers had their Delco Plant on display at the fair. The agents for the company set the plant in motion and darkness turned into brilliant light. The fair was saved.
Reliability did not seem to be a strong suit of the Alabama Power Company. The meters were about as reliable as the river tides. One man reported that his house had been locked up for a month and his electric bill was the same as the last few months.
Citizens were becoming more and more displeased with the power system. It was a "dinky" steam plant, which was in turn dependent upon the water supply. The water supply was not reliable and when it failed the electrical system failed. For example, in the coldest months water froze and therefore the current failed.
By January of 1924, the city officials were fed up with the steam plant. For days the Alabama Power Company force had been trying to supply current. R. B. Thomas reported that he thought connections with the main line should be made immediately.
In March the transformer from the Albertville depot was moved and the connection put Guntersville on the main line. The city was now connected with the main power line from the Coosa River. The advantage was that there would be a continuous current and no shut down. The disadvantage was that the steam fire alarm siren was gone. James McIntyre, manager of the water supply, suggested replacing it with an electric alarm.
The electric fire alarm arrived in June of 1924 and was installed on top of City Hall. It was tried out and the voice of the people cried out "It will awaken anyone who is not past medical help."
In these early years the Alabama Power Company held meetings for the ladies of the city for instructional purposes. In August of 1925, the electric stove was introduced to the ladies of the city. A demonstration was given on how to cook food successfully on this new invention. Many city ladies still cooked on wood stoves.
A new White Way was being planned by the Alabama Power Company in December of 1929. Poles and wires were being put in place. The main business section of North Town was to be properly lighted. After some consideration the South Town business section was to be included in the project.
In 1933 a special election was held in the City. This election proposed approval of a municipally owned light and power plant. The vote was 288 in favor of the proposal and 73 against. It took three years for the City Council to negotiate with an electric company to acquire and operate the municipal light and power system. The company was Universal Electrical Construction Company of Nairn, Louisiana.
ENTER TVA in 1934! The Tennessee Valley Authority was trying to reach an agreement with private utility companies to acquire existing distribution facilities in the Tennessee Valley section of Alabama. Alabama Power Company agreed to convey all of their property except municipal distributing systems in several counties. They also agreed to not serve electrical energy to any customer in the designated areas.
After months of delay, work was begun on the Guntersville Municipal Power System complex in December of 1937. There were legal proceedings instituted by the Alabama Power Company against the city. According to Guntersville officials TVA was to provide current to the city. They were expected to have transmission lines completed to Guntersville by the completion of the municipal system.
The much talked about municipal power and light distribution system was near completion in April of 1938. It was supposed to begin operation on May 01 of that year. This plant was modern in every respect and cost the city $100,000.00. The plant was constructed over a 6 month time period, upon completion it was connected to TVA's main transmission line.
H. P. Petti was the supervisor of the new plant, Mrs. Annie Vergie Hooper Barton, bookkeeper and cashier, and J. W. Dunn was lineman. Their office was in City Hall on Worth Street next door to the Democrat.
During the week of April 20, 1938, there arose a snag in the program! The Alabama Power Company filed a petition in Circuit Court asking for an injunction against further construction of the municipal light and power system. The plea was how the lines of the system would be placed. This company was afraid that the close proximity of the lines and the operation thereof would endanger their property and the lives and property of the citizens of the city by possible short circuit. O. D. Street represented the power company and Claude Scruggs represented the city.
In May, Judge Hawkins made the decision to dissolve the injunction. Immediately following Judge Hawkins' decision, a crew from the city office began connecting customers who had signed up for the service. It took several days to get the 187 customers connected. Alabama Power Company removed all their wires and poles in 1940. They had no further interest in Guntersville.
The first traffic lights were installed around June 05, 1938. The first one was placed at the comer of Broad and Taylor Streets. The second was placed at the comer of the Drug Store in South Town.
Guntersville owned the new Municipal Power plant. TVA provided the current. The streetlights were turned on. Guntersville, at last, had come up from darkness into light.
TVA power proved to be a reliable and reasonably priced resource for the city. The city electric department began expansion to electrify the entire city and the surrounding areas. This expansion proved to be a costly endeavor. In 1954, proceedings were started to change the form of the city power board so that the debts of the city electric department would not be an obligation against the city government itself.
On September 25, 1954, the Electric Board of Guntersville was incorporated and all assets of the city electric department were transferred to the Electric Board at that time.
Today the Electric Board serves approximately 6,500 customers and maintains over 300 miles of electric lines in Guntersville and the surrounding areas.
Researched and written by:
References: The Democrat, 1903-1925; The Advertiser-Democrat, 1929-1938; and The Advertiser-Gleam, 1938-1954.