Before Georgia Power, There Was Thomas E. Roane or How Clayton’s Lights Were Turned On

A Rabun County mountain man from Tiger, Thomas E. Roane was not an electrical engineer. In fact, he had no college education at all. But that did not stop him from engineering and building the first power generating system to bring electricity to Clayton back in 1914.

That was the same year Georgia Railway and Power Company, the predecessor of current-day Georgia Power, started generating hydroelectric power in Rabun County with the completion of its Tallulah Gorge dam and power plant. However, not a single kilowatt of that electricity benefitted Rabun County. All of the electricity generated at Tallulah Gorge was transmitted to Atlanta to power Georgia Railway’s electric streetcar system.

But due to the efforts of Thomas Roane, homes and businesses in Clayton were able to turn on the lights.

Electricity Comes to Clayton in 1914

Roane established Clayton Light and Water Works Company in 1908 to build a hydroelectric plant at the base of a small waterfall on Stekoa Creek, a few miles south of Clayton. The force of the falling water turned a turbine that powered a generator to produce electricity. Roane used his untutored knowhow to engineer and build the entire system.

By 1914, the small Stekoa dam and powerhouse were completed, and poles had been erected and strung with wire, connecting the generating plant with more than 50 businesses and residences in Clayton. The town was on the grid.

Among the beneficiaries of electricity were the hotels that lined Main Street as a result of the tourist boom brought by the Tallulah Falls Railroad earlier in the century. Having electric lights became a major selling point for hotels in their advertising.

Demand Exceeds Generating Capacity

Demand for electricity ultimately outstripped the supply generated by Roane’s tiny power plant. As reported by the Clayton Tribune in July 1927, “Mr. Roane, owner and manager of the local plant, realized some time ago that he was not able to supply the demands on his plant for electric current and proceeded to make arrangements with the power company (Georgia Power) to connect with their lines at Lakemont and draw from them enough juice to supply the demand.” Lakemont was the site of Georgia Power’s Terrora hydroelectric plant.

The July 1927 article proudly concluded: “In fact, we are now connected with the Southern Power Companies (the parent of Georgia Power) and have as much electric power as any one has at any other place.”

Clayton Light and Power Sold to Georgia Power

Roane sold his Clayton Light and Water Works Company to Georgia Power in 1928. The Clayton Tribune wrote in December of that year: “Mr. Roane began the service here some fifteen years ago as a pioneer, and though without much capital, he has made a success of his undertaking even in the face of what sometimes looked like insurmountable obstacles. He deserves a great deal of credit for his initiative in the matter of giving Clayton light and power when it was so much in need of it.”

The article added “it is rumored that they (Georgia Power) will build new lines and otherwise make improvements of the system. At this time, they are installing meters wherever they are furnishing current…”

Roane Enters Telephone Business

Thomas Roane’s entrepreneurial drive was not restricted to electricity. He also purchased Rabun Telephone and Electric Company in 1918, which provided phone service to Clayton businesses and residences. To improve service, he and Charles E. Cannon constructed a building on East Savannah Street in 1924 to house a new telephone exchange. Cannon used the remainder of the building’s space for offices and storage for his mercantile business. That building is now the site of the White Birch Inn.

Roane sold the company in 1927 to Western North Carolina Telephone System, which was a subsidiary of the Bell Telephone Company. In June of that year, the Clayton Tribune reported: “All the old poles and wires have been torn down and an entirely new system will be installed. New poles and leaded cables are being placed on the main streets. A new switch board will be installed also.”

Two-Digit Phone Numbers

In August 1927, the Clayton Tribune reported that many Clayton businesses and homes now had two-digit telephone numbers. Some of the numbers included 24 for the Green House Hotel, 29 for the Blue Ridge Hotel, 45 for the Bynum House and 16 for T.E. Roane.

The Tribune’s phone number was 21. The article encouraged readers “to use the phone to let us know of any news that the paper should have.” When speaking with the operator to make a call, readers were instructed to “Use the number. Not the name. Get the habit.”

Estatoah Hydroelectric Plant in Dillard

Meanwhile, in September 1928, a group of citizens agreed to build a hydroelectric plant to serve Dillard and the surrounding area of northern Rabun County, including the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School. The engineering company of J.B. McCrary, a local resident, built a dam and powerhouse at the base of Estatoah Falls on Mud Creek, between Dillard and Sky Valley. Rabun Land and Water Company, which owned and operated the Estatoah hydroelectric facility, inaugurated electrical service to Dillard in early 1929.

Miniscule Generating Facility

The Estatoah plant was tiny. It generated only 240 kilowatts of power. By comparison, the Nacoochee hydroelectric plant, the smallest of Georgia Power’s six hydro facilities on the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers, generated 4,800 kilowatts of electricity at that time.

In fact, everything about the Estatoah facility was miniscule. The masonry dam on Mud Creek, which was only 12 feet high and 50 feet long, impounded a small pond. The powerhouse totaled 400-square-feet.

Kilowatts Are Your Servants

An advertisement in the Clayton Tribune told readers why they needed Estatoah electricity in no uncertain terms. “The kilowatts you hear so much about are YOUR SERVANTS…Let these silent and unobtrusive servants work for you. They’re always ready to leap to the task. They never rest or talk back. They’re tireless, day and night, Sundays and holidays, every hour of every day of every year.” Who wouldn’t want a servant like that?

The Estatoah plant was sold to Georgia Power in 1960. The utility continued to operate the facility for 55 more years before it was taken out of service in 2015 due to its minimal power output and high maintenance costs. The plant was officially decommissioned in 2019.

Barry Brookshire, manager of Georgia Power’s North Georgia Hydro Group, told the Clayton Tribune that Estatoah in its final years, “was more a novelty than an effective means of power distribution. It might produce enough electricity to run two modern households for a day.”

New Deal’s Rural Electrification Agency

Clayton and Dillard were the exception and not the rule when it came to electrification. Rural areas of Rabun and other northeast Georgia counties remained without electricity for decades to come.

In 1936, New Deal legislation established the Rural Electrification Agency or REA, which loaned money to cooperatives to run power lines into rural areas. Founded in 1938, the Habersham Electric Membership Cooperative (EMC) was funded by the REA to bring electricity to rural portions of Habersham, Rabun, Hall, White, Stephens and Lumpkin counties. Power started flowing in 1939, and the Habersham EMC is still serving customers in these locales.

Lanterns and Lightning Bugs

Despite progress made by the REA, it was years before this area was completely electrified. In 1972, power lines were finally extended to Tate City, just over the Rabun line in Towns County.

It was not all that long ago when candles, kerosene lanterns and lightning bugs lit the night.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in December 2020.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.