CULLOWHEE – Duke Power Co.’s donation to Western Carolina University of a collection of documents, artifacts and several thousand photographs relating to the operation of Nantahala Power & Light Co. were recognized with a reception on Monday, Feb. 17, in WCU’s Hunter Library.
The materials in Duke Power’s donation date back to Nantahala’s organization in 1929 and document the company’s history and involvement in industrial and economic growth in Western North Carolina, said George Frizzell, head of special collections at Hunter Library.
The reception included the unveiling of an exhibit of photographs, maps and other materials from the Nantahala collection. Former NP&L employees were special guests for the occasion.
“This is a very important addition to the Special Collections of Hunter Library and to WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center because it provides original resource materials covering a wide range of topics,” Frizzell said. “The materials will support studies on the economic and industrial development of our region, on rural electrification, the engineering achievements of the company dams, and the social history of the region.”
The collection, which fills more than 50 large boxes, includes Nantahala’s routine operational files, but also information on the company’s responses to natural disasters, its philanthropic activities and community involvement. The collection includes scrapbooks and videos, in addition to the photographs, Frizzell said.
The NP&L collection is already being used by a WCU “local history” class to create an online exhibit about the history and effects of rural electrification in Appalachia. Richard D. Starnes, an assistant professor in WCU’s department of history who teaches the course, said the exhibit will go online in May.
Nantahala Power & Light Co. was created in 1929 as a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). Needing electricity for the largest aluminum manufacturing plant in the world near Maryville, Tenn., Alcoa was interested in developing hydroelectric resources in the western mountains of North Carolina. Nantahala was formed as a public utility to provide power for Alcoa and for the residents and businesses of the region. Crews used hand tools and mules to clear rights of way, set poles and install transmission lines. In 10 years, nearly 125 miles of lines had been built.
With the outbreak of World War II, the need for additional power sources to fuel defense plants became a national priority, and Nantahala employees and contractors completed two major hydroelectric projects – Nantahala and Glenville (Thorpe) — in two years to increase production to more than eight times the output of several small municipal systems NP&L purchased earlier. The company completed other hydroelectric projects in the late 1940s and during the Korean War, and by 1952, after 23 years in operation, Nantahala’s customer base had grown from 86 to 8,373.
Hydroelectric projects completed during the 1950s included Cedar Cliff, Bear Creek and Tennessee Creek/Wolf Creek. By 1971, customer growth made it impossible to meet demand with NP&L’s power generation alone, and the company began purchasing supplemental power from the Tennessee Valley Authority. Duke Power Co. purchased Nantahala in 1988 and, in 1991, Nantahala’s system was connected to the Duke Power system, making NP&L part of the southeast power grid for the first time.
In 1997, NP&L moved into new corporate headquarters in Franklin, and one year later the company became a division of Duke Power. In December 2000, NP&L formally became part of Duke Power, known as Duke Power – Nantahala Area. Today, the Nantahala Area serves 65,000 customers in 1,729 square miles in Cherokee, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.
For more information about the Nantahala collection, contact George Frizzell in WCU’s Special Collections at (828) 227-7474.