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Spring 2017

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The Jefferies Hydroelectric Station, which stands tall beside the Tailrace Canal, is noted for its distinctive art deco architecture that was popular during the 1930s and early 1940s.
The Jefferies Hydroelectric Station, which stands tall beside the Tailrace Canal, is noted for its distinctive art deco architecture that was popular during the 1930s and early 1940s.

75 Years Since Santee Cooper’s First Flow of Power

On Feb. 17, 1942, as war raged in Europe and the Pacific, a significant event in the history of South Carolina occurred.

Inside a concrete hydroelectric facility, on a newly created lake and canal 33 miles north of Charleston, S.C., a turbine turned officially for the first time. And thus, the dream of the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project became a reality. Some said the project would never be built. Some said the two lakes the project created would not hold water. And some said there would not be enough demand for the power it would generate.

Today, 75 years later, Santee Cooper has outlasted its critics from the 1930s, and even earlier. To understand Santee Cooper today, one must go back into history.

The Santee Cooper project was constructed more than three-quarters of a century ago, but equipment such as this excavator would not look out of place at a construction site today.
The Santee Cooper project was constructed more than three-quarters of a century ago, but equipment such as this excavator would not look out of place at a construction site today.

The Santee and Cooper Connection Began in Colonial Times

Even before the American Revolution (1775-1783), South Carolinians dreamed of using the state’s rivers for a flow of commerce from the Piedmont, through the Midlands and to the Lowcountry. After the war, the General Assembly chartered a company “for the inland navigation between the Santee and Cooper rivers.”

Under the leadership of Gov. William Moultrie, Revolutionary War heroes Gen. Francis Marion and Gen. Thomas Sumter, and other leaders such as John Rutledge and Henry Laurens, the 22-mile long Santee Canal was constructed from 1793 to 1800. At a cost of $650,000, it linked the two rivers, enabling cargo-laden barges from as far as 90 miles above Columbia to travel all the way to the port of Charleston.

However, nature and the Industrial Revo-lution intervened. Drought periodically dried up the canal. Steamships, followed by the railroads, provided faster and cheaper shipping. By 1850, the General Assembly revoked the canal company’s charter and the canal was largely forgotten.

A construction crane towers above the Pinopolis Power Plant during construction.
A construction crane towers above the Pinopolis Power Plant during construction.

The concept of again connecting the Santee and Cooper rivers to support commerce was reborn in the 1920s as a dream of T.C. Williams, a Columbia businessman and entrepreneur. Williams also firmly believed that a lowland hydroelectric project could provide that link.

As owner of the Columbia Railway and Navigation Co., Williams was in the transportation business. He had the vision of carving out two huge lakes and building a navigation lock that would provide a waterway from Columbia to Charleston for his steam-powered boats.

Williams surveyed the swamps and woodlands of the Lowcountry, and soon developed plans for his massive undertaking combining hydropower and inland navigation. In 1926, Williams obtained a license from the Federal Power Commission. But his dream came crashing down with the Great Depression.

This riveter tosses a rivet at the powerhouse’s construction site, left.  Workers provide a visual sense of scale to the massiveness of the transformer outside of the Pinopolis Power Plant, right. This riveter tosses a rivet at the powerhouse’s construction site, left.  Workers provide a visual sense of scale to the massiveness of the transformer outside of the Pinopolis Power Plant, right.
This riveter tosses a rivet at the powerhouse’s construction site, left. Workers provide a visual sense of scale to the massiveness of the transformer outside of the Pinopolis Power Plant, right.

Project Was Seen as Way for State to Recover

In 1933, as South Carolina struggled to pull out of the economic doldrums, Williams’ dream was resurrected by a group of resourceful legislators including state Sens. Richard M. Jefferies and J. Strom Thurmond. They obtained a promise in 1935 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to federally fund the project.

In the General Assembly, legislators took note of the Great Depression initiatives being proposed in Washington under President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” administration. They determined that the rural areas of South Carolina, among the last in the country with no real plans for power, should share in the benefits of electrification by building the Santee Cooper project.

Other similar projects across the nation were in the works, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority’s massive plan for dams and hydropower. With untiring support from Charleston Mayor Burnet Maybank, U.S. Sen. James F. Byrnes persuaded the president that lighting up and energizing the state’s rural areas, where 93 percent of the people were living without electricity, could advance significant economic recovery.

Intake and scroll-case forms are made of wood, and are shown prior to the pouring of concrete. Once completed they allowed water passage to turn the mighty turbines at the Pinopolis Power Plant.
Intake and scroll-case forms are made of wood, and are shown prior to the pouring of concrete. Once completed they allowed water passage to turn the mighty turbines at the Pinopolis Power Plant.

The means for doing that was to create the power-producing, state-owned utility that came to be known as Santee Cooper. Electrifying the rural areas would improve the quality of life for those who lived there, Byrnes insisted. It would also provide the means to create jobs by allowing for the geographical expansion of business and industry, which at the time were clustered primarily in the state’s urban areas.

To be eligible for federal funding to finance the project, Washington required that the General Assembly create a state-chartered entity in order for the project to move forward. After considerable political debate, Gov. Ibra Blackwood signed legislation on April 7, 1934, creating the South Carolina Public Service Authority, Santee Cooper’s formal name. The Authority’s purpose was to construct and operate the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project.

Finally, on April 18, 1939, work began on the largest land-clearing project in U.S. history. Construction proceeded at a nonstop pace for 27 solid months.

Muscles, mules and machines were used to clear swamps and woods, build the dams and dikes, and construct a powerhouse and navigation lock a few miles northwest of Moncks Corner in the community known as Pinopolis.

Establishing a malaria-control program by fighting mosquito breeding grounds was the first job done and a benefit for the entire region, as malaria was a serious public health problem at the time. Then came the clearing and land development. Approximately 177,000 acres were acquired for the project, with about 161,000 surface acres comprising lakes Marion and Moultrie in five counties: Berkeley, Calhoun, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter.

The scene as steel was going up and the powerhouse, where the five hydroelectric units would be installed at the Pinopolis Power Plant, began to take shape, left.  The Pinopolis Lock has two massive gates, one on Lake Moultrie and other on the Tailrace Canal, allowing watercraft to be raised or lowered 75 feet between the two bodies of water. The lock, 60 feet wide and 180 feet long, holds 6 million gallons of water taken from Lake Moultrie, right. The scene as steel was going up and the powerhouse, where the five hydroelectric units would be installed at the Pinopolis Power Plant, began to take shape, left.  The Pinopolis Lock has two massive gates, one on Lake Moultrie and other on the Tailrace Canal, allowing watercraft to be raised or lowered 75 feet between the two bodies of water. The lock, 60 feet wide and 180 feet long, holds 6 million gallons of water taken from Lake Moultrie, right.
The scene as steel was going up and the powerhouse, where the five hydroelectric units would be installed at the Pinopolis Power Plant, began to take shape, left. The Pinopolis Lock has two massive gates, one on Lake Moultrie and other on the Tailrace Canal, allowing watercraft to be raised or lowered 75 feet between the two bodies of water. The lock, 60 feet wide and 180 feet long, holds 6 million gallons of water taken from Lake Moultrie, right.

Nearly 13,000 workers, many taken off the relief rolls in every county of the state, were hired and work camps built. With land cleared for impoundment of the two lakes, entire communities had to be relocated. Whenever possible, these communities were kept intact and many families ended up with more land or newer homes than when the project started. Some families received new screened-in porches, and even chickens. 

Ninety-three cemeteries and more than 6,000 graves also had to be relocated, the most sensitive part of the resettlement program. Many families chose to have their loved ones remain in perpetual repose under the flooded waters. More than 200 million board feet of timber was harvested during the clearing operation, and sold in a manner that did not disrupt the economic structure of the lumber market.

Construction initially began at Pinopolis. Workers excavated two reservoirs comprising 225-square miles and built 40 miles of dams and dikes. This included the 26-mile long earthen dike that reaches 78 feet above the coastal plain. The Pinopolis Dam included the hydroelectric station and navigation lock, the highest single-lift lock in the world at the time.

The lock is 60 feet wide and 180 feet long. The touted demand for regular commercial barge traffic between the port of Charleston and a dock area in Cayce, S.C., is one aspect of the Santee Cooper project that never panned out. The lock is primarily used by pleasure craft during the boating season, and operating the lock for fish passage is also a rite of spring.

Workers during the construction of the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project (1939-42) put wooden scroll-case forms into position at the Pinopolis Power Plant near Moncks Corner. Concrete was poured later to complete the massive water intakes that turn five turbines.
Workers during the construction of the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project (1939-42) put wooden scroll-case forms into position at the Pinopolis Power Plant near Moncks Corner. Concrete was poured later to complete the massive water intakes that turn five turbines.

However, Santee Cooper does use the lock for its own barge that assists in maintaining navigation markers on the lakes and transmission lines in such locations as the Waccamaw River. Of note, a major component for the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station’s expansion project was shipped up the Cooper River from Charleston and through the lock several years ago, and then trucked from Lake Marion to the Fairfield County worksite.

On the banks of the 4-mile-long Tailrace Canal, adjacent to the hydroelectric station, a switchyard was built, the initial hub of the transmission system for power generated by Santee Cooper. From this switchyard flowed electricity for distribution systems, electric cooperatives and major industrial users.

On the Santee River, an 8-mile-long earthen dam better controlled the periodic and life and property-threatening floods of the past. A 3,400-foot long spillway was built to control floodwaters. Its 62 massive floodgates allowed the spilling of excess water.

To build the Santee Cooper project, 41 million cubic yards of earth were moved and 3.1 millon cubic yards of concrete were poured. The total cost was $64.8 million, with 55 percent of the cost a federal loan and 45 percent a federal grant. The project was overseen by the federal Public Works Administration and much of the labor was provided by the Works Progress Administration.

Pittsburgh Metallurgical Co., a key World War II defense contractor located in North Charleston, received Santee Cooper’s first flow of power at its ferrochrominum manufacturing facility on Feb. 17, 1942.
Pittsburgh Metallurgical Co., a key World War II defense contractor located in North Charleston, received Santee Cooper’s first flow of power at its ferrochrominum manufacturing facility on Feb. 17, 1942.

First Flow of Power

Feb. 17, 1942, was eagerly anticipated by the firm where the first flow of power would go: Pittsburgh Metallurgical Co., a defense contractor in North Charleston. Later known as Macalloy, the company made ferrochromium, a key defense metal used to harden steel for ships and tanks.

As Unit 2 at the Pinopolis Power Plant spun to life, Santee Cooper’s critical role in the war effort was just beginning. Santee Cooper served the Charleston Naval Shipyard and the Charleston Naval Base through World War II, the Cold War and until they were shuttered in 1993. Today, Joint Base Charleston, formerly the Charleston Air Force Base, is a direct serve customer of Santee Cooper.

Unit 4 followed Unit 2 by just a couple of weeks, coming online on March 5, 1942. Both units were recently refurbished and returned to service last year, with improvements including the latest hydroelectric technology – and a 20 percent increase in generating capability, to about 36 megawatts each.

In 2016, Unit 4 at the Jefferies Hydroelectric Station was rebuilt with a 20 percent increase in generating capability.
In 2016, Unit 4 at the Jefferies Hydroelectric Station was rebuilt with a 20 percent increase in generating capability.

Subsequent units came online later in 1942 and, although  not rebuilt, still operate. There are five hydro units at Jefferies: units 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. There is no Unit 5, although placement was provided for it in the original plan. It was later determined there was not enough lake inflow for six units. In 1950, a 2-MW hydroelectric facility was added at the Santee Dam.

“Units 2 and 4 are bigger and better than ever, and hopefully will be able to run as long as the original equipment did,” said Jody Perry, longtime Jefferies employee and current superintendent of operations. “They are state-of-the-art hydros now.”

Since that Tuesday 75 years ago, Santee Cooper branched out into other ways to generate electricity: with coal, natural gas, nuclear and renewables. For its customers, including the electric cooperatives, that depend on Santee Cooper for power, the original hydroelectric project and its purpose works today as intended three-quarters of a century ago.

Sunlight streams into the Jefferies Hydroelectric Station, which still makes reliable power today as it did in 1942.
Sunlight streams into the Jefferies Hydroelectric Station, which still makes reliable power today as it did in 1942.