Hitching the New South to "White Coal": Water and Power, 1890-1933

Article excerpt

IN HIS 1932 BOOK, HUMAN GEOGRAPHY OF THE SOUTH: A STUDY IN Regional Resources and Human Adequacy, sociologist Rupert B. Vance declared, "There are two great economic complexes that may be expected to force" states to abandon selfish or provincial attitudes in favor of regional or national outlooks. Vance's study provided guidance for building a modern region, and he challenged long-standing assumptions that the South was a colonial outpost bedeviled by race relations and that it could be nothing more than a poor land inhabited by poor people. Born in Arkansas, Vance contributed to the liberal strain of regionalist analysis at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in the 1930s; he saw a way out of regional backwardness as the United States entered the global Great Depression. As the first complex, Vance considered continued railroad network development vital for connecting crops and peripheries to markets and central cores. More recently, historians have examined the environmental and cultural consequences of railroads in the American West and the South and have demonstrated that transportation and technological systems integrated those regions into the national fabric. But Vance's second complex, hydroelectric development in the humid and generally water-blessed Southeast, is still poorly understood as a force of change in the first three decades of the twentieth century. In a region well endowed with flowing water, Vance argued, rivers were prime renewable energy resources that could be "harnessed" to benefit farmers and factory workers. Vance's travels and collaborative research throughout the Southeast revealed an extensive, privately capitalized network of hydroelectric dams, reservoirs, and transmission lines that stretched from North Carolina to Mississippi.

Relying on these observations, Vance advocated a publicly funded and publicly owned regional hydro-complex that mimicked the private energy corporations' modern systems. When Vance looked across "the Piedmont crescent of industry" a year before President Franklin D.

Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, water appeared as one of the most underutilized natural resources and as a renewable energy source monopolized by a few private energy companies and industries. Vance saw both the fruits and the inequity of the New South economy, and he embraced hydroelectric power--widely known as white coal--and cheap energy as tools to shape a new future. (1)

James B. Duke--the tobacco king and university benefactor, and subject of Vance's most detailed case study--started one of the most prolific energy companies, which continues to operate over a hundred years later. The Duke Power Company's founding goal in 1904, according to Duke himself, was to harness "white coal" from rivers that previously flowed unused as "waste to the sea." (2) Today, the region's rivers and lakes are artifacts that reveal much about the legacy of southern water and southern power in the decades before the advent of the TVA.

White coal, in Vance's estimation, could redefine the New South's relationship with the rest of the nation and improve southerners' daily lives. Reassessing Rupert Vance's ideas provides a new interpretation of southern modernization. First, regionalists such as Vance influenced the shape of the TVA and other river valley programs in the 1930s. Second, the TVA project inspired other federal river and energy programs in the Southeast and across the nation after 1945. But more important, especially for this article's analysis, Vance opens a window into an early period of regional modernization that has been overshadowed by the TVA's high-modernist experience, by repeated depression-era assertions that the South was the nation's top economic problem, and by the federal largesse that built the Sun Belt after 1945.

This article examines who hitched the New South to white coal during a crucial period in the region's history between 1890 and 1933. …