The triumphs and tragedy of TEPCO and its towerDec 15th, 2010 | By admin | Category: History Mystery, In Every Issue
The mystery of the triumphs and tragedies of TEPCO and its Tower
Photo courtesy Frances McDonald
Story by Jennifer Crutchfield
Sizzling and crackling energy lived within the thick concrete walls of the building we call Parkway Towers. A broken smile of cracked windows and decay looms over the Interstate on Chattanooga’s horizon in a structure that once represented the greatest marvel to come to the Chattanooga territory…electricity.
During the 1880 boon years Chattanooga thrived. The lumber resources and coal fields combined with the Tennessee River and railroad systems, making the Scenic City the hub of the territory. A.K. McClure, editor of the Philadelphia Times wrote, “if Chattanooga does not prove to be the greatest city in the South, the people themselves will be to blame.”
Josephus Conn Guild was born 1862 in Gallatin, Tennessee, grandson of a famous jurist and son of a prominent attorney. Jo Conn was a talented engineer, those skills leading him to Chattanooga, the center of the territory. His innovations in engineering brought Chattanooga into the modern world of electricity, forever changing the households, lifestyles and industry of the South.
One of the original incorporators of Coca-Cola bottling and the engineering mind behind the genius of the Incline Railway, Jo Conn and his partner Charles James built a hydroelectric dam on the Tennessee River below the Suck. Though he died before the Hale’s Bar project was finished his son and James persevered, launching a change that would electrify the South.
In 1905 Guild and his partners formed the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company, responding to President Teddy Roosevelt’s call for the construction of dams in the Tennessee River Gorge. Roosevelt wanted private industry to improve navigation, dams raising water levels and covering the rapids and shallows that had plagued river commerce since pioneers found Ross’s Landing. That company grew to become known, by 1922, as the Tennessee Electric Power Company, TEPCO.
TEPCO became a Chattanooga institution, building substations to form a power grid to carry electricity produced at the dams to families in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville. Son replaced father and the Guild men powered their city and region with hydroelectric dams and plants that turned Chattanooga into the “Electrical Center of the South”.
The thick concrete and steel building at 19th and Carter Streets is where voltage was stepped down, turning the raging waters of the Tennessee River into the large-scale change that electricity brought to households and businesses in the region. TEPCO became the largest private-sector electrical power monopoly in the state. They began the Chattanooga holiday tradition of decorated downtown windows that continues today at the Electric Power Board.
When another Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, sought to tame the Tennessee River TEPCO found itself waging a mighty war. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and its power of eminent domain threatened the empire of electricity and Jo Conn Guild, Junior took their case to the Supreme Court.
Decades after TEPCO lost to the TVA the Parkway Towers building is still stained with strife. A tragic accident in 2005 left a teenager paralyzed and the building’s owner locked in lawsuits, more threats of eminent domain and a lethargy that leaves the building vacant amid a vibrant community.
A district that was once a hub of manufacturing, the area around Parkway Towers now hums with life as the Chattanooga Market and the revitalized Main Street and Southside neighborhoods draw people from around the region to live, work and play.
Today, in a neighborhood celebrated for its transition and appreciation of art, children, the property owner and Mark Marking, a local non-profit, worked together to shine light on the blight of the building. A commissioned graffiti mural piece makes the statement “It’s Here” and the owner hopes the provocative painting will inspire conversation, resolution and progress.
Chipped paint, broken windows and the vagaries of vandalism hide the history of a building that was part of the “Dynamo of Dixie”. An eagle eye can see the raised letters that spelled the name TEPCO, hiding under layers of graffiti tags and grime. Though the façade has faded the current owners of Parkway Towers Development Inc. hope to restore its past strength and let it take a place of honor again on the horizon of the city it lit.
Visit the Chattanooga Market on Sundays at the First Tennessee Pavillion and at Warehouse Row during the winter season. Check out the entertainment schedule at www.chattanoogamarket.com.
The ChattTown Skate Park, maintained by the Parks and Recreation Department, is at 1801 Carter Street. You can reach them by calling 757-2076.
Watch the Chattanooga FC bring the world’s game to our city at Finley Stadium Davenport Field and visit them online at www.chattanoogafc.com.