Birmingham rose so quickly from the iron-rich soil around Red Mountain in the late 1800s, people dubbed the burgeoning new metropolis the “Magic City.” But as is the case with all good tricks, there were things happening behind the scenes that helped make the magic happen.The Powell Avenue Steam Plant was one of those key components that sparked Birmingham’s magical growth.

The History

The Powell Avenue Steam Plant was built in 1895 by the Consolidated Electric Light & Power Company. It provided steam and electricity for downtown businesses and powered the nation’s second largest streetcar system. The plant became part of the Birmingham Electric Company in 1921 and was acquired by Alabama Power in 1952 when the two companies merged.

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The Powell Avenue Steam Plant

A Brief History

Less than 25 years after Birmingham’s founding in 1871, it became evident the city needed a central facility to provide electricity, particularly for the new streetcar system designed to connect downtown to surrounding neighborhoods. So in 1895, the Consolidated Electric Light Company constructed a small electrical plant on Powell Avenue next to the railroad lines. It was taken over a few years later by the Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Company. By 1905 the facility had more than doubled in size to occupy an entire block, and had begun offering steam heat to the central business district.

After that, it was full steam ahead for the city. By 1920, more than 300,000 people lived in Birmingham and nearby communities. It was, thanks in part to the Powell Avenue Steam Plant, a magical time.

“The Powell Avenue Steam Plant was a vital and important part of the growth of the city of Birmingham,” Alabama historian Leah Rawls Atkins said. “You can’t have an industrial economy without electricity, and Powell Avenue provided the power to run the industry of Birmingham. It represents a significant part of Birmingham’s history.”

The plant sported generators ranging in capacity from 80 to 300 kilowatts, and more than a half dozen steam boilers of various sizes. The whole thing was fueled with coal from the rich seams under Red Mountain.

Rail cars transported the coal from the mountain to the plant, which is why the facility was placed alongside the city’s downtown rail lines.

What proved to be slightly more problematic during those early years was the removal of coal ash from the plant. Dale Dambach, who was the Powell Avenue plant manager from 1982 until it closed in February 2013, said a visitor to the plant in the 1980s provided some insight into the process.

“This man told me he would come to the plant when he was a small child – before 1920 – with his dad on a mule-pulled wagon,” Dambach said. “Back then, all the ashes were raked out of the boilers and then delivered by hand trucks over to a skip hoist that was pulled up through the floor.

“So they would take the ashes, dump them in this pan, raise it up through the floor and dump it on a mule-pulled wagon. This man said he would ride the wagon with his dad, and they hauled those ashes out of there.”

The two-story, 40-foot-tall building used to be topped by three 90-foot chimney stacks. But on Jan. 15, 1927, one of the stacks fell. Sharon Jackson knows that date well, because her grandfather was working in the plant that day. It also happened to be the day her father was born.

“I’ve heard the story about the day the stack fell all my life,” said Jackson, an Alabama Power customer care specialist who has worked for the company for 31 years. “My grandfather, Henry Jackson, worked at the plant on the DC currents that ran the street cars. On the day the stack fell, my grandmother was pregnant with my father. When she heard what had happened, she took the streetcar to town to make sure my grandfather was OK, and afterward she went into labor. So my daddy was born the day the stack fell.”

The Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Company was merged into the Birmingham Electric Company in the 1920s, which later merged with the Alabama Power Company in 1953. At that point the Powell Avenue plant quit producing electricity, but continued providing steam heat for customers throughout downtown, including Birmingham’s growing medical community, as well as the Alabama Theatre.

A wide assortment of equipment – tanks, pipes, valves, pumps, motors, fans, compressors – was needed to run the plant. While much of it was replaced and upgraded over the years, some items remained in service until the end, including two huge rotary DC generators.

One of the most interesting was a complex contraption that ran various maintenance tools at the plant. It remained part of the operation well into the 1980s. Dambach described the system of belts and pulleys as being “very Rube Goldberg looking.”

“It was sort of like the belts in an old grist mill or sawmill,” he explained. “This thing had eight or 10 different pieces of equipment, like grinders and drills and saws. And all of it was run by belts off this one pulley system. So if you wanted to use the grinder, you went over and engaged the belt that operated the grinder. But one motor drove everything. You really had to see it to believe it.”

“It’s one of the most historical structures in the city of Birmingham, and we recognize the need to preserve it for future generations,” Alabama Power archivist Bill Tharpe said of the Powell Avenue plant. “We’re going to be cognizant of that as the redevelopment proceeds, and any of the changes we make will still reflect the historical integrity of the building.

“The Powell Avenue Steam Plant generated steam heat and electricity for so long. Now it’s still going to be generating energy, but a different kind of energy,” Tharpe added. “It will be a civic energy – pumping juice into the community as a cultural asset.”

by Cary Estes

Locate Your Business Within The Steam Plant