The hydroelectric battle

The visitors’ center at Bull Shoals-White River State Park is well worth the visit.

On the back deck is a spectacular view of Bull Shoals Dam with the lake on one side and the cold water of the White River on the other side.

If you have any doubt that Arkansas has the best system of state parks in the country, this facility will help put such doubts to rest.

Inside, exhibits tell the story of the White River, both before the construction of Bull Shoals Dam in the late 1940s and early 1950s and in the decades that have followed.

As an Arkansas history buff, the thing I found most interesting was a framed front page of the Baxter Bulletin from 64 years ago (it now publishes six days a week but was a weekly at the time). It was the issue published after President Truman spoke at the dedication of Bull Shoals Dam on July 2, 1952.

Truman, never one to mince words, took a shot at Arkansas Power & Light Co. (now Entergy Arkansas) and the other private power companies that had opposed the use of federal dams to generate electricity.

According to the articles in the newspaper, AP&L engineers had constructed a model in an attempt to show that flood control and hydroelectric generation weren’t compatible goals for the same dam.

Truman didn’t hesitate on the day of the dedication to make fun of that model.

What you must understand is that AP&L had been the most politically powerful business entity in the state for several decades thanks to the skills of Harvey Couch and C. Hamilton Moses.

Couch, who grew up in rural Columbia County, had at the age of 35 in 1914 purchased the only electric transmission line in the state. That line ran 22 miles from Malvern to Arkadelphia.

Couch later built two dams on the Ouachita River near Hot Springs (forming Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine) to generate electricity for his growing utility company.

By 1930, AP&L had 3,000 miles of lines and served customers in 63 of the state’s 75 counties. Couch also formed Mississippi Power & Light Co. and Louisiana Power & Light Co. He built the first modern natural gas-fired power plant in this part of the country near Monroe, La., and was appointed by President Hoover to the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corp., which was formed in 1931 to address problems caused by the Great Depression.

“The only luxury the longtime resident of Pine Bluff (where AP&L had its headquarters) allowed himself was a rustic log cabin on Lake Catherine,” Patricia Laster writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “He called it Couchwood, and there he entertained everyone who had helped him in his rise to fame, as well as international bankers and presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Couch used his political influence to persuade officials in Washington not to create a taxpayer-subsidized Arkansas River Valley Authority that would cut into AP&L profits. Instead, the Roosevelt administration pushed for the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was created by Congress in May 1933.

Like Couch, Moses grew up in rural south Arkansas. He was born on a farm near Hampton in 1888 and worked in area logging camps when he wasn’t in school. He graduated from what’s now Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia in 1908 and then headed south to New Orleans, where he obtained his master’s degree in Southern history from Tulane University. He earned his law degree in 1911 in Little Rock and then went to work for Gov. George Donaghey. Moses later served as an adviser to Gov. George Hays and Gov. Charles Hillman Brough.

Moses became the general counsel for AP&L and Couch’s other businesses in 1919. Moses moved into the role of AP&L president following Couch’s death in 1941 and proved just as politically influential as Couch had been. Moses was the AP&L president until 1952 and remained as board chairman until 1955.

Sherry Laymon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that “private power companies profited greatly during World War II as they operated at full capacity to meet war production demands. However, decreased power loads after the war created financial difficulties for utility companies, which eventually led to an intense struggle between public and private power entities in the 1940s. To increase public demand for electricity, Moses initiated his Arkansas Plan, designed to encourage community leaders to utilize local residents, resources, capital and labor to strengthen their communities and attract business and industry into the state. The University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, state organizations and private corporations supported his efforts and organized to form the Arkansas Economic Council in December 1944.

“Moses, Arkansas’ business cheerleader, visited many Arkansas communities and motivated Arkansans to demonstrate civic pride in their towns by making notable improvements to attract new industry. As a result, local residents enhanced their communities by paving city streets, whitewashing storefronts, landscaping public property and developing recreational programs. They also built houses, churches, hospitals and schools, which attracted more industry to the state. Moses then traveled across the country preaching the gospel of Arkansas to draw corporate attention to the state. Within 10 years, the state reaped bountiful harvests as new industry created 36,000 jobs.”

Arkansas remained a rural, poor state, though. And large parts of rural Arkansas remained without electricity.

“Private power companies had explored the possibility of building a dam at Wildcat Shoals above Cotter as early as 1902 but never began work toward it,” Scott Branyan writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Congress approved the construction of six reservoirs in the White River basin in the Flood Control Act of 1938. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report in 1930 had recommended the Wildcat Shoals site along with seven others as being the most effective of the 13 investigated. However, in a 1940 report, the Corps of Engineers presented the Bull Shoals site as an alternative to Wildcat Shoals, where unsuitable foundation conditions had been found. This report recommended the construction of Table Rock and Bull Shoals as multipurpose reservoirs for flood control, hydropower generation and other beneficial purposes, coming to the conclusion that the reservoir projects were justifiable.”

Pushing early on for construction of dams on the White River was Congressman Claude Albert Fuller, who served in Congress from 1929-39. Fuller, who had practiced law at Eureka Springs before being elected to Congress, helped lead the fight for adoption of the Flood Control Act of 1938, which followed a series of devastating floods in the region in 1937.

Fuller was defeated in the Democratic primary of 1938 by Clyde Ellis. Fuller went back to Eureka Springs to practice law and served as president of the Bank of Eureka Springs from 1930 until his death in 1968. He continued as a private citizen to advocate for the dams.

Meanwhile, Ellis took up the fight in Congress. Ellis, the oldest of nine children, had been raised on a farm near Garfield in Benton County. The farm had no electricity, and rural electrification became his passion.

Ellis helped form the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was designed to protect the interests of the New Deal rural electrification programs.

Ellis ran for the Senate in 1942 and lost in the Democratic primary. John L. McClellan became the state’s new senator. Ellis was hired in 1943 as the first general manager of the NRECA.

In a 1984 history of the NRECA titled “The Next Greatest Thing,” it was written: “The record of NRECA in those years, stamped with the strong and powerful personality of Ellis and his spellbinding, single-minded leadership, is studded with stunning victories, few defeats.”

Sheila Yount writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “Known as Mr. Rural Electrification, Ellis led the electrification association through funding battles for the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided low-interest loans to the nation’s electric cooperatives, and fiercely fought the power companies, which opposed the rural electrification program. Rural service was far more expensive to create than service in urban areas. When the power companies charged higher rates for rural service, their customers used less electricity, making the service increasingly unprofitable.

“Ellis also helped persuade the federal government to include hydropower plants at Norfork Dam in Baxter County and other dams in Arkansas that were originally designed for flood control only. He fought major battles to give the cooperatives access to the power from those dams. Ellis credited the NRECA’s success to the grassroots support of the electric cooperatives.”

Ellis wrote a book titled “A Giant Step” in 1966.

“The wires which tied the houses of rural people together also seemed to unite their spirits,” he wrote. “Beginning in the early days and growing through the years, there has been some unusual quality about the rural electrification program, which has drawn people of diverse political and social views together in a common purpose. The people who work for our program feel they’re working in a cause or movement or a crusade, which many of them can’t define.”

Yount writes: “Besides the political arena, the association’s role expanded to provide many services for the nation’s electric cooperatives, including retirement and insurance plans; training for directors and employees; legal seminars for cooperative attorneys, safety training; and communications assistance. Ellis also helped bring electricity to people in 30 other countries through the Agency for International Development. This program was a compilation of various federal efforts to provide foreign aid during the Cold War. Created by the Kennedy administration, AID used American dollars to fight poverty and bring about development in Third World nations. Ellis traveled to Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and other countries promoting rural electrification, using his experiences in Arkansas to prove to governments and citizens that such a program was possible anywhere in the world.”

Construction on Norfork Dam on the North Fork River began in the spring of 1941.

“The North Fork River was a strong candidate for a tributary flood control project,” Branyan writes. “The Corps noted it was a primary contributor to flooding in the White River because of its steep banks and big feeder streams, which frequently swelled quickly during periods of runoff. For a number of years, the Corps and private entities had studied the site for potential hydropower use as well. … Securing funding for Depression-era projects at the time of a possible impending war, however, was difficult.

“Congressman Ellis argued that a dam with a power plant was immediately needed for any increased manufacturing requirements during possible wartime production demands. He succeeded in obtaining funding and additional authorization for hydropower in the Flood Control Act of 1941, and the Little Rock District of the Corps of Engineers awarded the construction contract to the Utah Construction Co. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.”

The Norfork powerhouse was operational by 1944. A second generator was in use by February 1950.

The dam was made entirely of concrete — about 1.5 million cubic yards to be exact. The site that was chosen is 4.8 miles upstream from the confluence of the White and North Fork rivers at Norfork.

A Missouri Pacific railroad spur from Norfork to the site of the dam was built to move equipment, concrete and 2,000 tons of reinforcing steel. A total of 27,000 railroad cars moved along the spur during construction.

“During 1940, several hundred small farms were abandoned in Baxter County and left in foreclosure,” Branyan writes. “However, the construction of a dam in the area meant prospects for work during the Depression. As soon as word of the approval of Norfork Dam appeared in the newspapers, locals began contacting Ellis to inquire about jobs. During the four years of the project, the number of workers employed on both the dam and powerhouse was 815.

“Farmland around two communities along the river — Henderson in Baxter County and Bakersfield in Missouri — was inundated. Around Henderson, about 400 landowners had to relocate. Twenty-six cemeteries were moved. Crops continued to be harvested into the late fall of 1942. The lake began to fill by Feb. 1, 1943.”

Construction of Bull Shoals Dam began in 1947. That dam required 2.1 million cubic yards of concrete. At the time of its construction, it was the fifth-largest concrete dam in the country, and its powerhouse was the largest building in the state. Powerhouse construction began in September 1950 and concluded two years later. The final two generating units were installed in 1963.

“The completion of the dam and reservoir immediately began to affect the local economy,” Branyan writes. “Media coverage attracted attention to the region and resulted in the quick growth of the tourist industry. In 1940, there were only 13 businesses in the area that provided overnight accommodations. By 1970, 300 such establishments could be found. Assessed taxable real estate values, per capita income and manufacturing payroll rose dramatically in the following decades. The area also now supports a retirement community.

“The dam put an end to long, multiday fishing floats from Branson, Mo., to Cotter. Jim Owen of the Owen Boat Line had operated a float trip business on the river for many years. Largely through Owen’s promotion, the White River garnered a reputation for excellent smallmouth bass fishing. But the new reservoir soon offered equally excellent lake fishing for a number of warm-water species as well as stocked trout below the dam. Marina, boat businesses and fishing guide services sprang up rapidly to handle the influx of anglers.”

Resorts such as Gaston’s became nationally known due to the quality of the trout fishing created by cold-water releases from the dam.

Back to Clyde Ellis: The man known as Mr. Rural Electrification retired from the NRECA following a heart attack and stroke in 1967. He was named general manager emeritus.

Ellis later worked for the U.S. secretary of agriculture and for McClellan in the U.S. Senate. Ellis died in February 1980 in Washington following another stroke and is buried across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here in Arkansas, he probably should be remembered as the man who handed AP&L a rare political defeat while bringing government-subsidized hydropower to a poor, rural state.

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