By John Schaffner
Few residents of Sandy Springs know about or have seen the Morgan Falls Dam and Hydroelectric Plant on the Chattahoochee River at the northern end of the city. Even fewer know its history.
The dam came on line in October of 1904 to produce electricity to power the Atlanta street car system 12 miles to the south, and is among the first and largest early hydroelectric projects in Georgia.
Today it not only has historic and engineering significance, but is sparking the development of valuable riverfront parkland for the city of Sandy Springs and its residents—a four-acre park just downstream of the dam and a 20-plus-acre park just upstream at an area known as Bull Sluice Lake.
But even without the parks, the imposing dam structure, the tranquility of the river wildlife and fauna and the soothing sound of the steady flow of water through the dam, from Bull Sluice Lake above it to the outflow downstream, combine for a unique experience at a special place.
Except for modern-day plastic bottles and trash floating in the river and along the bank, and other such reality checks of today, it is an experience that has remained much the same for more than 100 years.
After the first electric light was demonstrated in Atlanta on October 20, 1880, electric power was immediately in demand in the state capitol. In 1883 the Georgia Electric Light Company was organized and later that year purchased its first power plant and built a generating facility at the corner of Marietta Street and Spring Street.
Atlanta quickly outgrew the capacity of its first plant, which was used to run the electric lights and streetcars. Banker Henry Atkinson became the first owner of the Georgia Electric Light Company in 1890 and one of his first tasks was to rebuild the outdated electric system. In 1902 Atkinson chartered the Georgia Railway and Electric Company to consolidate his street car lines and electric generating facilities under a single company.
About the same time, S. Morgan Smith, had formed the Atlanta Water and Electric Power company and began plans for building a generating plant on the Chattahoochee River. Smith built the water-driven turbines to run the power generators used in 1904 for the dam and hydroelectric plant.
In order to build the dam the state expanded and upgraded Roswell Road and Smith built a railroad to the site of the dam. Smith and Atkinson entered into an agreement with Atkinson buying the entire output of Morgan Falls Dam. Unfortunately, Smith died in 1903, before the facility was completed.
The dam and plant have not been changed from the original design. They have just been upgraded. The vertical generators were replaced in 1922 and six feet was added to the height of the dam around 1960 when two-foot flash boards were added to the top. The original gravity type dam and the original powerhouse are still in use. The seven-unit facility was built at a cost of $1.5 million, an astounding amount of money at the time.
The dam is 1,031 feet long and 56 feet tall and holds back Bull Sluice Lake—the lake formed when the dam was built between 1902 and 1904. In fact, the dam and plant were originally named Bull Sluice. It was renamed in honor of Smith’s mother, whose maiden name was Morgan.
What has changed about the facility is its primary function. Today, the dam primarily levels the flow down river for the operation of the city of Atlanta’s water and wastewater systems, according to Wayne Hardie, hydro superintendent of the Chattahoochee Hydro Group of Georgia Power. “This dam is very important for the drinking supply and wastewater assimilation for the city of Atlanta, Cobb County and those areas downstream.”
In fact, that is the reason the dam was raised with the flash boards at the top. Hardie said that was done by Georgia Power with the City of Atlanta, because when they put Buford Dam in they got “peak flows coming down the river that wasn’t good for Atlanta’s water supply. It would be here and then gone.”
So, he explained, they raised the elevation a net of six feet so that there would be more storage. “If this dam wasn’t here, Buford’s generation one hour, maybe two hours a day would flood the water down and then it would be gone. Then 22 hours later, you might get two more hours of river flow. We are obligated to give a certain minimum flow down the river at all times,” he added.
All seven power generators are turning all the time, but they are not all generating power, Hardie said. Water is only forced through when the turbines are generating power. Most of the generating equipment may be running in idle, he said, “keeping them ready in case they need to be brought on line for power generation.”
Inside the plant the seven vertical generators can be seen turning . The turbines, which are taking in the water and turn the generators are behind the wall. The generators are powered simply by water. When they are turning in idle position, the motors on the generators are being powered by a very small amount of electricity.
“The water comes into the units and goes straight out,” Hardie stated “Georgia Power does not use any of the water and 100% of the water that comes in goes out the same way it came in—not heated, nothing added to it or anything. Hydro is a very renewable source and is the cleanest,” he added.
Hardie said the electricity generated when the plant is operating at full capacity would power about 4,400 homes. “So power generation is no longer the primary purpose for the dam.”
The plant operation is monitored 24 hours a day seven days a week by a person in a booth inside the generating room.
Hardie said Morgan Falls is the worst dam in Georgia in terms of debris that comes to the dam—trees cut down and placed along the river bank waiting for high water to wash them away, thousands of tennis balls, bottles, cans, etc. Most of it is discharged through to downstream, except for the large pieces, which they remove and put in a dumpster.
The city of Sandy Springs is working with Georgia Power on a big river cleanup on September 29th. Volunteers will be deployed up and down river. Last year they pulled out about 4,000 pounds of debris. Georgia Power provides hot dogs and hamburgers for lunch for the volunteers.
Georgia Power is now in the process of re-licensing the dam—a 50 year license that ends in Sept. of 2009. The re-licensing effort is a collaborative effort between all the stakeholders and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which licenses non-federal dams, Hardie explained. Most of the work is behind Georgia Power, including public input from some 200 people through public hearings and stakeholder meetings.
He said Georgia Power has been working closely with Parks Service and the state Department of Natural Resources on some of their needs and has been doing a lot of work with the Chattahoochee Nature Center. The re-licensing process started in 2003 and even involved going to Oklahoma and meeting with the American Indians who formerly were located in this area.