With Badin Lake down, visitors catch a rare glimpse of 'Ol' Whitney'
By Mark Wineka, Salisbury Post
NEW LONDON -- In recent weeks, they've walked to this spot as if drawn by some irresistible force.
They show up in twos and threes. Some carry cameras. Others stroll in a bit sheepishly with hands in their pockets, wondering if they're trespassing.
The visitors stop near the old railroad trestle and immediately look toward Badin Lake and the granite structures that have been revealed by Alcoa's drastic drawdown of the water.
Growing up, they had always heard about the Whitney Dam and the canal that was supposed to divert the Yadkin River to a power plant almost 5 miles downstream. Well, here it is, undeniable proof that "Ol' Whitney" really does exist.
Billy Asbill and his father, Frank, could see about 4 feet of the dam's top stretching across much of the width of the lake. Closer to them, the canal's walls poked above the water line. The structures looked like lake monsters coming up for air.
Frank Asbill understands why engineers a century earlier thought this would be a good place for a dam.
"That water's going a good 8 or 10 mph, isn't it?" he says. He also marvels at their good fortune in seeing the dam and canal up close.
"If you just ramble around, you can really find things to see," he says.
Alcoa Power Generating Inc. has begun refilling Badin Lake, meaning the dam and canal walls will soon be underwater again. Alcoa lowered the water level temporarily this month as part of a fish habitat study in the reservoir.
For many people, the exercise afforded them the best look they've ever had -- drought or otherwise -- at the fabled Whitney Dam. "This is the lowest I've ever seen it," says Billy Asbill, a High Point resident who has a second house on the Montgomery County side of Badin Lake.
Looking at the long-submerged, long-forgotten dam today, few people realize that it once represented the largest construction project in North Carolina history and, regrettably, a failure of monumental proportions.
"It was the biggest thing going on, but no one knows anything about it," laments Salisbury postcard collector and author Susan Sides.
The never-completed dam lies just below the railroad trestle and upstream of a city of Albemarle pump station at the end of Old Whitney Road, which extends off N.C. 740 between New London and Badin. The remoteness of the area once served as a major drawback to anyone who dared to dream of harnessing the industrial potential of the Yadkin River as it passed through this narrow gorge.
But the development of long-distance transmission lines allayed that fear.
A town called Whitney grew up quickly next to the dam construction site 100 years ago. An old-timer once recalled for the Post that Whitney had at least 60 houses, a post office, commissary, handsome superintendent's house, two depots, a water-line system and a fancy clubhouse with a granite-walled swimming pool.
A daily passenger train made a round trip from Salisbury (via New London) to Whitney, and two freight trains delivered materials every day. Ross and Cotton of New London supplied, for example, 5,000 pounds of meat per month to Whitney, which boosted the income of numerous other businesses such as saw mills, foundries and stables.
William Whitman, editor of American Cotton Manufacturer in Charlotte, predicted in 1906 that Whitney would have a population of 100,000 in 10 more years.
But within a decade, Whitney was abandoned, the victim of bad investments and even worse luck. Most of the Whitney buildings were torn down or moved by 1915. Others would be lost to fire or nature in subsequent years. Today it's an area of fields, woods, railroad tracks and a collection of lake homes.
The dam that was eventually built -- the 1917 Narrows Dam -- stands about six miles downstream and backs up the river water that now covers the Whitney impoundment and canal walls during normal reservoir operations.
The Whitney Dam's history meshes with that of Rowan and Stanly counties.
Egbert Barry Cornwall Hambley, a civil and mining engineer from England, originally came to Rowan County as an employee of Gold Hill Mines Ltd.
After trips to mining regions around the world, he eventually returned to North Carolina, established residence in Salisbury and worked as a consulting engineer for British mining companies here. But Hambley dreamed bigger.
In the late 1890s, Hambley helped to pool money from New York and Pennsylvania investors to develop a hydroelectric power site on the Yadkin River, seven miles from Gold Hill.
He saw potential in the Narrows, a deep, 3.5-mile gorge of the Yadkin. Hambley organized the North Carolina Power Co. with $5 million in capital stock and $2.5 million in bonds, while also engaging the support of Pittsburgh financier George Whitney, a friend of banker and industrialist Andrew W. Mellon.
Whitney also became interested in gold, copper and granite deposits along the Yadkin River and bought several thousand acres of potential mineral lands. He established the Whitney Development Co., with Hambley as his general manager.
In fact, Sides says, Whitney organized eight different corporations in Rowan County and capitalized each with $1 million or more. Hambley served as president of each. "It's stunning," Sides says, "and it was all right here in Rowan County."
The corporations included the Whitney Co., The Whitney Reduction Co., The Yadkin River Electric Power Co., Yadkin Land Co., Yadkin Mines Consolidated Co., Barringer Gold Mining Co., Rowan Granite Co. and the Yadkin and Virgilina Copper and Land Co.
Whitney and Hambley's vision encompassed mining, manufacturing, real estate and utilities, and central to all of that was the construction of a hydroelectric power dam. In 1901, they set out on building a granite dam 35 to 38 feet high and 1,100 to 1,260 feet long that would create 27,000 horsepower. Predictions of its generating power increased four-fold as the project continued.
A 5-mile canal would divert the water from the dam to a power plant along the river. Historians say the powerhouse was to be located on the Stanly County side of the Yadkin at Palmer Mountain, about 4 miles below the dam site.
The men thought, at the very least, they could revolutionize some 257 cotton mills within an 80-mile radius by supplying them with electric power. The Hambley-Whitney partnership secured rights of way for power lines as far away as Knoxville, Tenn.
Richard Knapp and Brent Glass, authors of "Gold Mining in North Carolina," wrote that hundreds of workers, including miners from Gold Hill and stone masons from Sicily, descended on the site to build the dam out of huge blocks of granite. The company's engineers laid out streets and boulevards for what they thought would be the large manufacturing town of Whitney, and the company also bought 30,000 acres of land in five counties for future development.
"The public response to the Whitney project was warm and enthusiastic," according to Knapp and Glass. "Local newspapers greeted each progress report with predictions that Whitney and Hambley would transform the Piedmont into the garden spot of North Carolina, comparable to the great industrial sites of New England."
Whitney contracted T.A. Gillespie Co. as the builder, and experts of the day predicted that the Yadkin would supply more power than any river in America other than the Niagara.
Contractors built a railroad spur line from the dam site through New London to the quarry in Granite Quarry and mines in Cabarrus County. Granite blocks for the dam were shipped in from Granite Quarry.
Engineers directed the river water between a long line of cofferdams and the eastern shore. Dinkey railways were built on top of the cofferdams and on the dry river bed so that cars, drawn by small steam engines, could carry the rock and cement to the points needed.
Large derricks handled the heavy stones and buckets.
Designs called for the dam to be 48 feet high from base to top, with 38 feet above and 10 feet below the river. The dam's thickness was supposed to go from 60 feet at the bottom to 8 feet at the top.
Newspaper articles from the day said Whitney Dam contained 50,000 car loads of stone and 100,000 barrels of cement. Advertisements in a 1904 newspaper said the project was looking for 10,000 crossties, 10,000 cords of wood and millions of feet of lumber.
But the dam project faced several major obstacles. In 1904 an accident at the Barringer Mine in Gold Hill left eight men dead "and the company in debt to families and creditors," according to "Gold Mining in North Carolina." The Barringer mine never opened again and, filling with water, Whitney's other mines soon failed.
Each summer at the dam site, typhoid fever broke out, depleting the work force. Even Hambley contracted the fever in 1906 and was dead by that August, sending shockwaves through North Carolina's business community.
Whitney's bad luck continued. He lost heavily in his wheat investments. The Panic of 1907 led to huge losses for Whitney's coal-mining operations near Pittsburgh. Mellon forced Whitney into selling much of his business to Mellon at a huge discount. It's believed that work stopped on the dam at this same time, even though the dam, forebays and gate openings in the canal were close to completion.
By 1910, Whitney filed for bankruptcy, having lost $19 million. Hambley's family reportedly lost $5 million to $6 million in the project.
Receivers sold the Whitney holdings to North Carolina Electric and Power Co. Two years later, the property changed hands to L'Aluminum Francais, a French corporation. The new owners formed the Southern Aluminum Co., and the French eventually decided to abandon the Whitney site and build a hydroelectric dam directly at the Narrows, farther downstream.
Work on the new dam began in 1913, but the outbreak of War War I forced the French to desert the project. Ironically, Mellon's aluminum monopoly -- the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) -- became interested in Southern Aluminum and bought the company in 1915 at a bargain price.
By 1917 the new, 200-foot-high Narrows dam was generating 125,000 horsepower of electricity -- a celebrated construction project made possible in part by convict laborers.
The recent "uncovering" of the old Whitney dam happens to coincide with the release of Susan Sides' second postcard book, "Historic Salisbury and Rowan County in Vintage Postcards."
Both of Sides' books contain postcards showing the Whitney Dam in Stanly County under construction. She has 28 postcards in all of the Whitney project -- no doubt, the biggest collection. Some of the postcards she has display a "Whitney" postmark from the short-lived town's post office.
Most of the Whitney postcard photographs were taken by Theo Buerbaum. That makes sense, Sides says, because Buerbaum was brother-in-law of Richard Eames, a noted Salisbury mining engineer who would have had close connections to all that was happening in Whitney.
In 1886, Eames and Buerbaum established the North Carolina Herald, a weekly publication based in Salisbury and for which Eames served as "mining editor."
The Eames and Hambley homes remain as important structures in Salisbury's West Square Historic District. The 1901 Hambley house, longtime home to Leo and Virginia Wallace, served as a hub for Salisbury's social life during Hambley's time, when he entertained business tycoons such as Andrew Mellon and George Whitney.
And Hambley, Mellon and Whitney always seem to come back to life when the waters of Badin Lake recede.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com. Sides' postcard book will be available at Literary Bookpost and The Stitchin' Post.