During the late nineteenth century, the use of electricity by municipalities and in private residences was a growing phenomenon in South Carolina. New inventions such as light bulbs, telephones, and electric water pumps fueled consumer demand for access to electrical power in rural as well as urban areas.
In 1884 the State House received power from the first electric generating facility in the state. Three years later Columbia converted its streetlights from gas to electricity. This was a trend followed elsewhere: as electricity spread to other towns it was used mostly for street lighting rather than residences. Residential power, however, could turn up in surprising places. Pelzer residents received power at their homes when the mill went electric in 1895; most Columbia residents did not have electricity for several more years. By the turn of the century, South Carolina’s cities, towns, and mill villages provided electrical power to their residents with facilities that were either privately owned or paid for with taxes. The lifestyles of rural South Carolinians, by contrast, remained much as they had for centuries.
Progressive politicians soon began to promote legislation that would provide government funding for rural electrification, claiming that private utility companies such as Carolina Power and Light (formed in 1908) and the South Carolina Power Company (formed in 1926) ignored the needs of rural people. The utilities spent a considerable amount of money on the maintenance of poles, wires, and meters. Stringing lines for miles to reach farms cut into their profit margins, so, understandably, they preferred the denser urban markets.
This situation resulted in political efforts in South Carolina and throughout the United States to build government-owned utility companies, which could extend power to the rural population. The creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 provided for the construction of the first government-owned utility specifically intended for distribution to rural consumers.
In South Carolina a similar project was planned. The Santee Cooper power plant, technically the South Carolina Public Service Authority and known as the “little TVA,” was a project championed by Charleston mayor Burnet Maybank and U.S. senator James F. Byrnes. The intent of the project was to provide cheap electrical power generated by the state to rural residents in the lowcountry. Officially authorized in 1934, the S.C. Public Service Authority was immediately sued by various private utility companies that questioned the constitutionality of the project.
Until the lawsuits questioning its right to exist were resolved, the S.C. Public Service Authority was unable to borrow money from the newly created Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in Washington. These low-cost loans available through the federal REA were crucial to the completion of the project, since state funding was impossible in Depression-era South Carolina. Accordingly, the state government created the South Carolina Rural Electrification
Administration (SCREA) in March 1935. The following November, SCREA received its first loan of $542,328 for the purpose of providing electrical power to rural residents.
SCREA was created to borrow federal money to build lines in rural areas. It was also the distribution arm of the S.C. Public Service Authority. The grand vision was of a huge electrical power plant providing current to the entire state. The immediate result was a total politicization of the building of the electrical grid in rural South Carolina.
The board of directors of SCREA consisted of the governor, the comptroller general, the state treasurer, and the presidents of the University of South Carolina, the Citadel, Clemson, and Winthrop. There were also two members directly appointed by the governor to two-year terms. The structure of this borrowing agency slowed the pace of rural electrification in South Carolina, and focus on the Santee Cooper project tended to monopolize SCREA’s efforts at building distribution lines.
SCREA’s attempts to build rural lines were also hindered by the private utility companies. Although they questioned the constitutionality of the Santee Cooper project, which as a generating facility would be in direct competition with them, they did not question the legality of a state owned distribution system. They merely tried to hamper its construction by building “spite lines,” lines hurriedly built in areas that had already been cleared and surveyed at state expense. The spite lines cost SCREA much time and effort because it lost revenue for these lines after expending time and money to prepare for them.
Competition from public utilities, the focus on providing funds for the stalled Santee Cooper project, and political cronyism set the stage for the failure of SCREA. Widespread criticism of the agency eventually became an issue at the national level. In 1939 the REA made the decision to terminate loans to SCREA, effectively ending its attempts at rural electrification in South Carolina.
Instead, the REA began lending its money to electric cooperatives, which were grassroots organizations formed by farmers and county businessmen to facilitate rural line construction. Requirements for membership varied from county to county but were similar: members agreed to pay sign-up fees and promised to use a certain amount of current each month. The Williams Act, passed by the state legislature in 1940, required SCREA to transfer all of its lines to the local cooperatives. In 1939 the state had 1,853 miles of REA-financed lines. By 1941 the number had increased to 7,617 miles of line.
The Santee Cooper project cleared all legal hurdles and construction began in 1938. Material shortages during World War II caused delays in cooperative activity and on the Santee Cooper project during the 1940s, but all of South Carolina’s rural areas were wired by the late 1950s.
Brown, D. Clayton. “Modernizing Rural Life: South Carolina’s Push for Public Rural Electrification.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 99 (January 1998): 66–85.
Edgar, Walter B. History of Santee Cooper, 1934–1984. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1984.
Hayes, Jack Irby. South Carolina and the New Deal. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Price, Rulinda. “Rural Electrification in Upstate South Carolina in the Early Twentieth Century: A Study of the Political and Social Factors Affecting the Diffusion of Technology.” Master’s thesis, Clemson University, 1998.