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End of an era: Alabama Power family bids goodbye to Plant Gorgas

It’s hard to say goodbye to the place where you spent much of your life.

That was the feeling for Jimmy and Tracy Cook, who joined about 100 Alabama Power employees in viewing the implosion of the retired William Crawford Gorgas Electric Generating Plant on Sept. 9.

As the father and son set foot at Plant Gorgas – their family’s old stomping grounds – both felt a sense of regret. Alabama Power retiree Jimmy Cook, who served the company’s Generation group for 35 years, was chosen to ceremonially “press the button” to demolish three plant buildings and a vent stack. Stringent federal regulations forced the closure of the plant in 2019.

To Jimmy Cook, who built his life, career and family around the Black Warrior River facility, the idea of imploding the plant is comparable to closing the curtains on the final act of a play performed since 1917.

Plant Gorgas in its early days. (Alabama Power Archives)

“There’s a whole lot of history here,” said Jimmy Cook’s son, Tracy, who grew up at Gorgas Village, the long-closed homeplace of hundreds of Alabama Power employees who earned their livelihoods at the 1,250-acre plant site. Like his father before him, the younger Cook attended Thomas W. Martin School. The family moved to Gorgas Village around October 1969, when Jimmy Cook began working as a plant auxiliary worker.

To the audience of employees who gathered at 8 a.m., it was fitting for Cook to detonate some of the remaining structures at the plant, whose first units began operating more than a century ago. The crowd – seated under covered bleachers, more than a football-field’s length away, for safety – watched, silent, during the countdown. Finally, the moment came for Jimmy Cook to press the button atop a makeshift wood podium.

Following two ear-deafening explosions, an astounding crash engulfed the area as tons of steel and concrete dashed against the earth. Three boiler houses and one vent stack came down. The realization was difficult: Within minutes, what took many lifetimes to complete was no more.

“It’s a melancholy time for me,” admitted Jimmy Cook. “My wife, Hollace, is the same way. Her whole life was here. My wife grieved over the fact I was going to press that button. She doesn’t know how I got the audacity to press that button.

“So much blood, sweat and tears are in this place.”

Gorgas leaves great legacy of service to Alabama

The esteemed lady that was Plant Gorgas – with its beautiful Art Deco-style administration building – was a gem among Alabama Power’s coal-fired facilities and a leader among Southern Company’s electric system’s generating plants. Indeed, the plant recalled the greatness of an earlier age, when the place was filled with hundreds of busy employees joined as one in the work to make Gorgas great.

For more than 100 years and 26 presidencies, the Walker County facility helped provide reliable electricity to Alabama Power customers. At its height, Gorgas operated eight units that produced 1,416 megawatts (MW) of electricity. After the first unit was constructed in 1918, plant employees spent the next 54 years adding another nine units (older units were retired during that time) that would provide a large portion of the state’s electricity. It was a matter of pride to many early employees that they helped build Unit 2, a U.S. government generator, to bolster American war efforts during World War I.

A commanding aerial view of Plant Gorgas at its height. (Alabama Power)

Toughened federal environmental regulations forced the retirement of Gorgas Units 6 and 7 in April 2015. Demolition of those units began in fall 2016 and was completed around March 2018. Over nearly 20 years, Alabama Power has invested about $4 billion on environmental controls and projects across its fleet to meet more stringent federal environmental rules. In February 2019, with federal regulations mandating the need for additional retrofits that would top $300 million, Alabama Power decided to shutter the plant’s remaining units.

Throughout the years, Plant Gorgas and its employees have been strong supporters of schools and the Walker County community, said Jim Heilbron, Alabama Power senior vice president and senior production officer. The community will continue to receive support from Alabama Power and its employees, he said.

“When you think about Gorgas and its significance to Alabama Power, it was the first coal plant in the state of Alabama and absolutely took us from a company founded on hydro to moving into the era of economic development where we harnessed coal to make electricity through steam production,” Heilbron said. “This really advanced our state and allowed our state to grow and prosper. The plant meant so much to this community in Walker County, and so many people who raised their families here.

“Throughout Gorgas’s life and through our employees, we are connected to the community, and gave back in many ways,” he said. “The good news is we’ll continue to have employees here and will continue to be involved in the community. We’re celebrating the legacy of Gorgas and all the wonderful things it has done for our state.”

If the plant grounds could talk

Alabama Power President Tom Martin spoke at Jimmy and Hollace Cook’s graduation ceremony at Martin’s namesake school. (Photo by Encyclopedia of Alabama)

For Jimmy Cook, life truly began at Plant Gorgas some 74 years ago. Cook and his high school sweetheart, Hollace Hyche, attended Thomas W. Martin School on the plant grounds. The school served students from kindergarten to 12th grade.

One of Cook’s fondest memories was having then-Alabama Power President Tom Martin speak at the couple’s graduation ceremony.

“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “Martin was a great man.”

A self-described country boy from Walker County, Cook possessed a little swagger after joining the U.S. Army in 1965. He served at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, training at the air defense missile unit. Afterward, Cook returned home to Alabama to work.

That was natural, because he and his wife’s families are rooted in Walker County. Cook’s father was a Gorgas coal miner, digging up the black gold that fired the Gorgas boilers. Hollace’s grandfather, Fred Hyche, worked on Gorgas Units 1, 2, 3 and 4 before he retired in the 1960s.

Cook was only 21 when he joined Alabama Power in 1969 as a utility man, sweeping floors in Operations.

“I was cocky,” he said. “Most employees were in their 40s and 50s, which was a good thing, because I was able to learn a lot from them. All I ever knew was Alabama Power coal. I love what I know, how to run the plants and operate the plants.”

Recalling his years working at Plant Gorgas, Cook was amazed at the plant’s well-oiled operations. At that time, Walker County was a financially depressed area.

“Plant Gorgas was a perfect, contained environment,” Cook said. During that period, there were few generating plants on the Southern Company electric system. “When I walked into Gorgas Steam Plant, I was terrified. I thought, ‘I can never learn what all this equipment is and what it was does.’ The people were fantastic.

“It was amazing how the groups congealed, even though there were vast differences,” he said. “It was an area of no roads and no industry in the beginning, with Appalachian people in those days. They made things happen because they were able to memorize the things they were told to do. The most astounding thing, by far, was the people. It was amazing they did as well as they were able to do. They grabbed the technology and went with it.”

Thanks to Alabama Power, the community’s standard of living was substantially raised in a short time.

“I want to give credit to the people who worked at the plant and what they did for the community,” Cook said. “These folks ran the plant, they furnished company houses for the plant workers and miners. We only paid $5 a month for our living quarters.” Plant Gorgas provided water treatment for Walker County, as well as an ice plant, a hospital and a bus station.

During his tenure at Gorgas, Cook worked on every plant unit.

When then-Alabama Power Senior Vice President Harold Jones decided to train employees who didn’t have technical backgrounds, Cook took advantage of several training programs. He later worked at Plants Miller, Gaston and Greene County, as well as Mississippi Power’s Plant Watson. During his career, Cook was promoted 17 times. He retired as plant manager at Gaston in Wilsonville in 2003.

His fond memories of his Gorgas years remain: “It was the best time of my life.”

A flesh and blood legacy

In Walker County – a poor area long before construction began on Plant Gorgas – landing a job at the coal-fueled facility meant your family had “made it,” said Tracy Cook.

“Gorgas was more than a powerhouse to many people,” he said. “From its beginning, Gorgas developed into a community that has spanned several generations. Many of the people were subsistence farmers who would get an opportunity to answer the call of work on Units 1, 2 and 3. These people would not only get to work at the new plant but would get to receive the new source of energy that was provided by the plant. This would change their lives, and Gorgas would become a thriving community.”

The impact on that rural community can’t be measured.

The Gorgas Village house where Tracy Cook lived. (Tracy Cook)

“As the years went by, the community and the world changed, but Plant Gorgas continued to provide a living for many people and their families,” Tracy Cook said. “This couldn’t be truer for my family.”

He recalled moving to Gorgas village in 1978, and attending Thomas W. Martin School through 12th grade.

“The village was a fun place to live, quiet and serene,” Cook said. “There were probably 10 to 12 houses still occupied in the village when I got there. I was there until I moved out, when I went to the University of Alabama.”

Thanks in part to Plant Gorgas, Tracy Cook was the first member of his family to attend college, graduating in 1990 with an electrical engineering degree. After working at Gorgas for two summers during college and later at Plant Greene County, Cook got his first job at G.E. in Schenectady, New York, at the Field Engineering Training Center. Throughout the next few years, he worked throughout the U.S., learning the power industry.

Tracy Cook followed his father’s footsteps to Alabama Power in 1998, serving as Electrical team leader at Plant Gaston. In 2000, Cook became Operations team leader at Plant Miller. He moved to Mississippi Power in 2002, serving as a Maintenance manager and as an Operations manager. In 2003, he joined Georgia Power as a Maintenance manager. Five years later, Cook moved to Southern Company Services as CT/Combined Cycle Fleet manager; became a Mechanical Systems and Field Services manager in 2012; and has served as general manager of Mechanical Support for Technical Services since 2016.

“The impact Gorgas has had on my life is enormous. The people and the land are still in my daily life,” said Cook, who has a second home near the plant, inherited from his grandparents. For much of his life, Cook has had a bird’s-eye view of Gorgas.

“I still own this property. It’s a ton of history. It will be strange looking across and not seeing the stacks anymore,” said Cook, who enjoys hunting in the nearby woods.

“It brought so much improvement to people in the overall area,” Cook said. “Like all things, life changes and time moves on, but the impact that Plant Gorgas had on the local community, Alabama Power and our state is truly immeasurable.”