1992: Gorgas Steam Plant celebrates 75th anniversary


Ms. Shirley McRae was kind enough to loan me a booklet printed for the 75th anniversary celebration of Gorgas Steam Plant in 1992. I'd like to take a break from the Eagle archives this week to share some interesting stories found in the book.

The Warrior Reserve Steam Plant, Alabama Power Company's first fossil generating steam plant, was built in 1916. The coal-fired plant was ideally situated between local mines and the river.

The first unit went into service in 1917, and a second unit was built in 1918 at the government's expense. A photo in the booklet shows federal marshals on-site during World War I. 

During the war years, Alabama Power purchased land one mile west of the plant and opened Gorgas Mine. The mine, which operated until the 1970s, was credited with being "one of the first mines in the world to use bolts for roof control, trolley phones for communications, and many other progressive mining methods." A steam locomotive brought coal from the mine to the plant.

In 1924, a third unit came on line and the plant was renamed for Dr. William Crawford Gorgas, whose work preventing the spread of yellow fever and malaria were key to construction of the Panama Canal.

Gorgas, born in Toulminville, was head of the Panama Canal Zone Sanitation Commission. In 1916, he became the 22nd Surgeon General of the U.S. Army.

Alabama Power recognized Gorgas for testifying on the company's behalf after residents near Lock 12 filed a lawsuit claiming that mosquitos carrying malaria were breeding in the Lay Dam reservoir.

Employees and their families lived on the hills around the plant in company-owned houses. Utilities, water and rent were free. During the Great Depression, employees began paying $4 per room in rent.

As an example of the dedication of Gorgas employees, the booklet includes a story about workers wrapping their legs and feet in newspapers and walking down the hillside to work in 1939 when the river froze and snow stayed on the ground for three weeks.

Salaries at this time ranged from $70 to $90 a month, according to the booklet.

Alabama Power employed two doctors. One worked out of his basement, and the other worked near the plant and took care of construction injuries only. 

The Gorgas community included churches, a playground, a ball field, a post office, a commissary, a bus station and a school. 

C.O. Lineberry was the plant's first superintendent. Lineberry is described in the booklet as being someone who "kept things very well under control." As evidence, a letter from 1929 in which he demands action to address complaints regarding meals at the dining hall.

"I myself have experienced the following in the Dining Hall in the past few weeks: coffee entirely too weak, lima beans and vegetables not properly seasoned, loaf bread not fresh, eggs served cold for breakfast, lettuce sandwiches for midnight lunches," Lineberry wrote.

Lineberry was also credited with organizing an effort in which employees took a pay cut so that teachers would still be paid after federal funding for the school dried up.

The tenth and final unit came on line in 1972. The first three units had already been dismantled in the 1960s. Units four and five were retired in the 1980s. In 1992, units six through 10 were still in operation. 

The community around Gorgas Steam Plant had already undergone tremendous change by the early '90s. More change was on its way once environmental concerns and regulations took their toll. 

The closing of Gorgas was announced in February 2019. The reason cited was "costly, federally driven environmental mandates."  

"We recognize that Plant Gorgas and the men and women who have operated it have brought great value to Alabama Power, our customers and the local community," Jim Heilbron, the company's senior vice president and senior production officer said in a press release. "We are also concerned that more regulations are on the horizon that could require additional, costly expenditures at the plant."

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.