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Duke Is King – Duke Energy’s Origin Story

In North Carolina, Duke is king. While Tar Heel fans might strongly and verbally disagree with this comment, it is impossible to ignore the influence that James B. Duke has had in North Carolina. He not only founded Duke University and the philanthropic fund Duke Endowment, he created an utility company that has a near monopoly in North Carolina, being the primary utility provider in the state.

How did Duke Energy become monolithic corporation that is so well respected today? This is a fun and important part of North Carolina’s history, especially in the Catawba-Piedmont region. During the waning years of the 19th century, Southern Power Company, Duke’s predecessor, started out providing energy to the textile industry. This strategy quickly expanded when mill owners requested Southern Power to not only power their mills but also the towns where their employees live in. With a well paying clientele in their pocket, Southern Power decided to purchase other utility companies in the region to provide cheaper energy to more clients. The geographic diversification in Southern Power’s service providing location also allowed the population in the Catawba-Piedmont region to spread out instead of creating a singular urban center.

The shock that Southern Power brought to the region was a literal gamechanger. Electricity, and especially reliable energy, improved the quality of life of the many who lived within distance to a Southern Power steam station or dam. Small things we take for granted today like hot water, became available with the turn of a knob, and allowed for other tools like telephone, central heating, and indoor toilets.

While Southern Power Company quickly grew by improving their engineering talent and purchasing other utility companies, the journey was not without bumps. The Flood of 1916 was one of the most devastating natural disasters in the region, killing several people and costing millions of dollar in damage. The flood convinced the company that for the company’s long term success, they needed a way to have more flood prevention techniques to prevent another flood from wiping out their power plants. This became one of the first dams in the Catawba River, which is now recognized as the most “overworked” rivers in the country.

The next eighty years of Duke Energy’s history is as rich as the first thirty, including the development of Duke Endowment Fund and construction of Lake Norman, an artificial lake created as part of Cowans Ford Dam. While Duke Energy has recently caught flak for the mismanagement of coal ash ponds in Dan River, it is also impossible to ignore the benefits the company and its rich history has brought to North Carolina.

Source: Robert F Durden Electrifying the Piedmont Carolinas: The Beginning of Duke Power Company, 1904-1925 

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