Historic Stevens Creek Facility Adapts to a Century of Change

Stevens Creek Dam, on the Savannah River, has a 2,000-foot-wide spillway. At one end of the spillway is a lock, 90 feet wide and 165 feet long, which was used until the 1950s to allow passage of barges and boats.

The 18.8-MW Stevens Creek facility has operated reliably since it was commissioned in 1914, despite a host of changes. This historic plant is the newest inductee into the Hydro Hall of Fame and stands as a testament to the enduring nature of hydro projects.

By Ginny Jones

For 100 years, the Stevens Creek Hydroelectric facility has stood proudly on the banks of the scenic Savannah River, about 8 miles upstream of Augusta, Ga. In a setting rich with natural wonders and early human history, construction of Stevens Creek Dam and the accompanying hydroelectric facility began in 1912. The site has operated continually since 1914, providing power to people and businesses, while the surrounding Central Savannah River Area has experienced a century of growth and change.

Construction and operations

The industrial expansion of Augusta encouraged the hydroelectric development of the Savannah River. The Georgia-Carolina Power Company was incorporated in 1909 to build the first dam and hydroelectric plant on the Savannah River. The permit to operate the Stevens Creek plant was issued by the War Department on July 20, 1910.

As local residents began to understand the impact the facility would bring in terms of jobs and industrial development, their excitement was palpable. “Augusta’s pulse to throb with new power by first of next December; Stevens Creek plant ‘wonderful,'” reported The Augusta Chronicle in May 1913.

During the construction process, press tours and events were held to attract industrialists from the Northeast to invest in the area. “High above the city of Augusta, far up in the Savannah River, Chief Pilot S. S. Jerwan will drive his Molsant monoplane this afternoon, carrying The Augusta Chronicle on the first flight of the kind in the South’s history,” reported The Augusta Chronicle on Jan. 22, 1913. “He will deliver the South’s oldest newspaper and greetings from its management to the people who will gather at the site of the great hydroelectric development to participate in the celebration of the power that will be realized to the progress and prosperity of Augusta.”

The three-level powerhouse for the Stevens Creek project originally contained eight water wheels but was oversized to allow for future expansions.

This project was completed within two years, with a workforce of more than 800. Boarding houses, a butcher shop, bake shop, refrigerating/ice facility and commissary all were built on the original work site. Because great care was taken to safeguard the health of workers in the camp, filtered water and sewerage systems were provided, along with a fully equipped hospital with a resident physician.

And when the dam and hydro project was completed, local newspapers hailed it as the most advanced engineering feat of its kind in the Southeast.

Stevens Creek first produced power on Feb. 16, 1914. It initially contained five 2.36-MW units. Three additional units were added by 1926 to meet customer demand. Its generating capacity today is 18.8 MW and it is operated by South Carolina Electric & Gas Company.

Joe McGill, supervisor of the facility, is amazed by how quickly and how well the facility was built. “It’s remarkable to consider that they built this place in about two years. They only had steam power. Looking at the wooden forms they built for the concrete, they must have done them mostly by hand, and they just had ways of building things that we don’t have anymore,” McGill says. “I’m amazed at how accurate they were in terms of size and placement of all these large parts that come together so well.”

All the major mechanical components of the original five units (including the generators), the dam and the powerhouse that are in operation today date to the original construction of the plant.

Stevens Creek Dam has a 2,000-foot-wide spillway. At one end of the spillway is a lock, 90 feet wide and 165 feet long, which was used until the 1950s to allow passage of barges and boats. The three-level powerhouse has a concrete substructure, or foundation, containing the plant’s eight water wheels.

Each wheel is connected to a generator mounted on the floor of the steel-framed, brick-covered superstructure. The mechanical power produced by the water wheels turns the generators to produce electricity. The powerhouse measures roughly 328 feet long, 52 feet wide, and 57 feet high; the foundation is larger than the structure, to house two additional future turbines (no plans are currently in place to add these two units). A set of transformers steps up the low voltage produced by the generators to a higher voltage suitable for long-distance transmission.

Stevens Creek Dam impounds one of six reservoirs on the mainstem of the Savannah River. Three U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams are located upstream of Stevens Creek: Hartwell, Richard B. Russell and J. Strom Thurmond. J. Strom Thurmond is the closest dam upstream of Stevens Creek, about 13 miles to the north.

Downstream of Stevens Creek are the Augusta Canal Diversion Dam (about 1 mile downstream) and the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam downstream of Augusta.

Although constructed solely to generate electricity, Stevens Creek now functions as a re-regulating plant to mitigate the downstream effects of the wide-ranging discharges from J. Strom Thurmond Dam and its 381-MW powerhouse. Normal daily fluctuations in the water level of Stevens Creek Reservoir are 3 to 5 feet. As part of its role to control the effects of J. Strom Thurmond Dam, Stevens Creek can still produce hydroelectricity. The Stevens Creek facility, as completed in 1925 with the addition of three more turbine-generator units, continues to provide a yearly average of 94 GWh of electricity.

Today, the 18.8-MW Stevens Creek hydro facility continues to produce electricity as needed, providing fitting testimony to the long-lived, reliable nature of hydroelectric power.

“Our Stevens Creek Hydro plant and the staff have been an integral part of SCE&G’s generation portfolio for 100 years, providing non-emitting generation in the North Augusta region,” said Jim Landreth, vice president of fossil hydro operations with SCE&G. “This plant has a long history as a key driver to enhancing the local area infrastructure to attract industry and providing for vital community health and social enrichment.”

A rich history

In 1995, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a new license to SCE&G for continued operation of the Stevens Creek Hydroelectric Project. As part of the relicensing process, FERC required SCE&G to identify and evaluate all historic properties within the Stevens Creek project area for eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1991, a professional historian studied the buildings and structures in the project area, which were found to consist solely of the generating plant.

From 1991 to 1995, professional archaeologists conducted investigations in the upland and floodplain portions of the Stevens Creek project area. The archaeologists used a phased approach, with the first phase designed to define areas disturbed by the plant operation and to locate archaeological sites. The second phase was a more intensive study to evaluate whether any of the identified archaeological sites were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Ten of the 52 prehistoric archaeological sites in the Stevens Creek project area on which archaeologists conducted intensive excavations were determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Most of these sites are located on private land (six sites) and/or federal or state property (also six sites). None of the locations on private property can be visited without permission from the landowner.

Stallings Island, just downstream from the Stevens Creek facility, is a small island containing a rich collection of historic and pre-historic artifacts from many periods. In 1961, the National Historic Landmarks Program described the island in its Statement of Significance: “One of the most important shell mound sites in the Southeast, giving information on Archaic Indians who lived in the Savannah River drainage area.” It is likely that Stevens Creek Dam’s regulation of water flow over the past 100 years has helped preserve Stallings Island.

There has also been considerable effort by SCE&G over the past several decades to study the environmental impact of the Stevens Creek hydro plant on local wildlife, particularly fish. Fortunately, these studies have shown no evidence that the hydroelectric operations affect the well-being of the local fish population.

Modernization

The Stevens Creek facility has been innovative from the beginning. Stevens Creek was one of the first plants of its kind to use Kingsbury bearings, which feature a special vertical design to optimize the flow of water for power creation. The introduction of this bearing design change hydro units forever. Earlier hydro units used a horizontal design, but with the vertical Kingsbury design, the water wheels could be lowered, adding more net head for additional power.

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, “The load in a Kingsbury bearing is carried by a wedge-shaped oil film formed between the shaft thrust-collar and a series of stationary pivoted pads or segments. This results in an extremely low coefficient of friction and negligible bearing wear.”

Throughout the years, Stevens Creek has gone through many upgrades, including:

  • Units 1 and 2 transformers replaced (1976)
  • Overhaul of Unit 5 (1978) and Unit 1 (1979)
  • Replacement of 10 main head gates, eight filler gates, 12 filler gate stoplogs, 10 main unit trashrack sets and support systems and four exciter trashrack sets, in addition to installation of a new trashrake and rebuilding of the upstream lock gates (1982)
  • Installation of static exciters for Units 5 through 8 (1983)
  • Overhaul of Unit 2 (1985)
  • Overhaul of Unit 8 and installation of new governor (1986)
  • Overhaul of Unit 3 and installation of new governor (1987)
  • Overhaul of Unit 7 and installation of new governor (1988)
  • Overhaul of Unit 4 and replacement of Unit 3 and 4 main transformers (1990)
  • Three-phase electrical upgrade begins, with the first phase consisting of replacing generator breakers and modifying generator leads (1991)
  • Replacement of all-oil generator breakers with gas-filled breakers (1992)
  • Removal of all Woodward mechanical governors and replacement with Cross gate positioners (1993)
  • Replacement of control switchboard, completing the second phase of electrical upgrade (1994)
  • Replacement of two water-driven direct current exciters with a solid state rapid static exciter (1995)
  • Facility ceased 24-hour operations by relinquishing the operations to SCE&G’s Urquhart Station (a coal and combined cycle plant) in Beech Island, S.C., and a new 30-year FERC license was issued (1996)

McGill said the transition to remote operation from Urquhart Station was perhaps the most dramatic change he has seen in the four decades he has been at the facility. Handling plant operations internally required about 17 employees. Today, the facility has five employees who maintain and oversee the building and equipment. “Knowing there had been someone here, all day every day, taking care of things since operations started in 1914, it felt kind of strange to go remote,” McGill said. “But operating remotely from the Urquhart plant has worked out really well, and today it’s just our normal operation.”

Landreth said the plant has evolved into a classic example of marrying older, mature technology with state-of-the-art digital controls to increase productivity and meet the operating responsibilities to the river and the community. “The plant has a peak capacity capable of supplying electricity to 12,160 homes, and our staff has accepted the responsibility of maintaining the skills necessary to run a facility equipped with the old and the new technologies,” Landreth said.

A look downstream

The Stevens Creek facility is the last water-regulating dam on the Savannah River before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean, about 150 miles away.

The Augusta Canal, one of America’s oldest continuously operating industrial canals, is located downstream from the Stevens Creek plant. Built beginning in 1845, the waterway was essential to introducing the Industrial Revolution to the South. The textile industry in particular began to thrive during that era.

Today, the Augusta Canal provides water to power hydroelectric facilities that support three historic mill properties — the King, Sibley and Enterprise mill buildings. These buildings are used for a variety of functions, including offices, executive apartments, a modern textile operation and the Augusta Canal Interpretive Center, a museum and tour facility. Dayton Sherrouse, executive director of the Augusta Canal Authority, said the Augusta Canal Interpretive Center hosts about 7,000 school-aged children each year. The museum includes interactive exhibits about how hydroelectric power works, as well as exhibits about many aspects of life for Augusta residents during the 19th century.

“One of the most important things that people don’t know or understand is the role that the [hydro] facility plays in storing water from the distribution upstream and evening out the flow in the river,” said Sherrouse. “The Stevens Creek plant releases it evenly over a 24-hour period, and so the level of the water is steady as it comes downstream to the canal, even if it is flowing unevenly upstream of the Stevens Creek plant.”

Sherrouse said it’s important to have a steady flow coming into the Augusta Canal, which is a closed system: “If there’s not a steady flow, you have the potential of the canal overflowing. Or, it could go the other way and you have the potential for the canal not to generate enough water to support the three hydroelectric facilities that operate on the canal.”

Even further downstream, the Savannah River supplies water to Augusta-area paper mills, chemical plants and other industries along the river that provide an estimated 25,000 jobs.

While much has changed at the Stevens Creek Hydroelectric facility and throughout the surrounding area during the past century, the Stevens Creek facility remains a constant source of power and water regulation, supporting the continued growth and development of the area.

Ginny Jones is senior public affairs specialist with SCANA Services, parent company to South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, which owns and operates the 18.8-MW Stevens Creek facility.

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