Last updated: May 14. 2014 9:20AM - 1201 Views
Sam Shumate Special to the Post

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Electricity was slow in coming to our mountain region. Several entrepreneurs rigged up battery systems for lighting their homes. Small dams powered generators to keep the batteries charged. Lloyd Mitchell not only lighted his home on Sugar Tree Branch, he charged radio batteries for 25 cents. Business was good, for most places charged 75 cents.

Larger dams with larger generators followed in the 1930s. The Hamby Dam in Warrensville provided electricity for the village. This dam was located on Buffalo Creek downstream from the Stanley Hollow bridge. It washed out in the flood of 1940 and was never rebuilt. A larger dam was built at Mouth of Wilson in 1931, to power a woolen mill owned by Fields Manufacturing Company. They also provided power for local residents.

In 1930, Northwest Carolina Utilities, Inc. purchased land that included Sharps Falls on the North Fork of New River “…together with the rights to use waters of the North Fork of New River…and the privilege to construct, build and erect a dam across said river at Sharps Falls, 30 feet or less height…and the exclusive rights and privilege to back or pond water and flood any of the lands above said falls.”

The dam was built in 1931. It spanned 150 feet across and stood 30 feet high. Generators were installed in a square stone building. Lloyd Mitchell was the third person hired to construct the dam. Yes, the same Lloyd Mitchell who built his home system. He went north to work building the Conowingo Dam in Maryland at age 14. Two years later he returned to Ashe County and went to work on Sharps Falls at the age of 16. The dam was built originally to provide power to the town of West Jefferson.

Ernest Bumgarner was the first plant manager. The company provided him with a home below the dam. It washed away in the 1940 flood. Another was built across N.C. 88 from the dam.

Blue Ridge Electric purchased the dam in 1942 for $170,000. It produced electricity until it was shut down in 1970. The expense of maintaining the aging structure offset any income. The facility remained dormant for over 10 years.

Demand for and price of electricity continued to rise. BREMCO dredged the impound area and updated the equipment in the power house. A Lefner turbine was installed. It has the ability to operate with dam heights as small as 30 feet, perfect for Sharps Falls. BREMCO wired the unit to be operated from its headquarters in Lenoir. It didn’t take long to learn that this would not work. The intake would become clogged with leaves and other debris. The facility was again abandoned as economically unfeasible.

Sharps Falls eventually passed into private ownership. The new owner built an all-electric home on the property where he provides his own power and sells the remainder to Duke Power. Danny Farmer is the plant manager. In January 2011, the facility was accepted by the NC Utilities Commission as a Renewable Energy Facility.

The power dam has survived countless floods, a tribute to the workmanship in its construction. The concrete and rock work looks virtually the same as when it was built 81 years ago.

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