Southern Water, Southern Power: How the Politics of Cheap Energy and Water Scarcity Shaped a Region

By Christopher J. Manganiello | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Dam Crazy for White Coal
in the New South

In his 1932 book, Human Geography of the South: A Study in Regional Resources and Human Adequacy, Rupert Vance declared that “there are two great economic complexes that may be expected to force” states to abandon selfish or provincial attitudes in exchange for regional or national outlooks. Vance’s study provided solutions for building a modern region and challenging 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 in the 1930s; he saw a way out of the regional backwardness as the United States entered the global Great Depression. As the first complex, Vance considered continued railroad network development for connecting crops and peripheries to markets and central cores. More recently, scholars have examined the economic, cultural, and environmental consequences of America’s railroads and have demonstrated that transportation and technical systems integrated those regions into the national fabric. But Vance’s second complex, hydro electric 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 hydro electric dams, reservoirs, and transmission lines that stretched from North Carolina to Mississippi. Relying on these observations, Vance advocated for 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” one year before

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