It took thousands of workers to build Badin. A century after Alcoa finished the first dam, the company tore down its plant, but the dams it created still power the town.
From hundreds of yards away, you hear the water roar when it gushes from the spillway into the Yadkin River. The water froths up into steamy balls, and sometimes, it seems like the clouds dropped from the sky and descended on the river.
Eventually, the water flows downstream and forms a calm, steady current once again. It meets up with the Uwharrie River, and together, the rivers flow into the ocean.
But where the water stops in the concrete barriers is the most important part of this journey.
Along the Yadkin, there are four dams: Narrows, Falls, Tuckertown, and High Rock. They were built nearly a century ago to generate power for an aluminum plant.
A company built a town for the plant and named it Badin. For 100 years, Badin has been dependent on the dams, and just like the water, Badin rises and falls.
The beginning of this town lies beneath the still waters of Badin Lake.
In the 1890s, an English mining engineer had an idea: use the Yadkin River to establish an electric power plant to provide power for the surrounding towns. The engineer, Egbert Hambly, convinced Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania financier George Whitney to help him.
Seven years later, with the Whitney Dam nearly complete, the men declared bankruptcy. Within a few months, a group of French investors, looking for a power source to make aluminum, visited the Yadkin River. They bought out Whitney and Hambly in 1912.
French engineers quickly found a better spot for a dam a few miles downstream. They moved to the top of a mountain that overlooks the Yadkin. From sunrise to sunset, you could hear the clank of steam shovels, drills, scrapers, and crushers. The French bused in 500 prisoners to work on the dam.
Workers laid out the town of Badin like a European city with curvilinear streets that, no matter which direction you traveled, took you back to town. In two years, the French built 150 apartment buildings, a factory office, a laboratory, and a swanky club where engineers lived.
But in 1914, World War I began, and the men packed up, headed to the seaports, and boarded ships bound for France. A few months later, the owners of the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) took a golfing trip to Southern Pines. They mulled over the war and the prospect of the demand for aluminum. The two men, Arthur Vining Davis and Andrew Mellon, bought out the French in November 1915.
Within two months, they began work on the half-finished dam. Disaster seemed to wait around every corner. In 1916, a storm dumped 22 inches of water within a day; the raging waters wiped out cranes and crushers, and killed 80 people.
Men worked 24 hours a day to recover the losses. On June 17, 1917, workers finished the dam. Badin Lake reached its full height a few months later and swallowed the beginning of its roots — the walls and half-finished spillway of the Whitney Dam lay below water.
Alcoa named the massive structure Narrows Dam. Until the Hoover Dam was built, Narrows was the largest dam in the world.
Within a few years, the town of Badin became a bustling destination, full of shops and restaurants and some of the best-paying jobs in the state. Houses were built with modern-day plumbing and electricity that the rest of the state wouldn’t have for months to come. The population soared to 5,000.
Badin was a boomtown.
In every way, Badin and its people revolved around the aluminum plant that powered the town. Even the school mascots were the Volts and the Watts. There were schools for white students and schools for black students. The smelting plant separated the races — whites lived south and east of the plant; blacks lived to the north and west.
The town had a bank, six grocery stores, millinery stores, cleaners, a drug store, a cigar store, and a shoe shop. Down the road, there was an icehouse and a dairy, aptly named The Aluminum Dairy.
Badin was also home to the largest theater between Richmond, Virginia, and Atlanta, Georgia; it held 750 people. The theater’s massive chandelier rivaled those in any castle in Europe.
Like many other Southern mill and textile towns, a company owned the town. Alcoa offered workers higher wages and 28 different types of modern homes. There were bungalows, apartments, and cottages of varying sizes — two-bedroom, three-bedroom, and four-bedroom models. Each home had indoor plumbing and power — after all, Alcoa owned the water plant, the filter plant, and the power plant.
And Badin was one of the few towns in the state that offered housing and cultural facilities for its black workers. Alcoa built pool halls, community centers, and churches in north and west Badin for people of color. In February 1925, even Gov. Angus McLean came to a ribbon-cutting and barbecue for the Badin Colored School.
Culture and civic life were everywhere in Badin. Alcoa hired baseball players for the industrial baseball league, and the team played other textile companies around the state. When the baseball players weren’t on the field, they worked in the plant. Civic clubs were plentiful — the Lions, the Masons, and the Patriotic Sons of America all had local chapters. The theater had a ballroom upstairs. Dances took place in community centers.
But after World War II, things started to change. The town that saw the pinnacle of its population in the early 1920s started to decline. Families bought automobiles and began traveling to Salisbury, Charlotte, and Albemarle to shop.
The town never bounced back. But Alcoa remained the pulse of the town for another 50 years.
David Summerlin grew up in Badin and worked for Alcoa, just as his father did. Summerlin, 75, has a thick chest and wavy, silver hair he combs to the side. He wears boat shoes, a gold ring, and Wrangler jeans. Summerlin founded the Badin Historic Museum, and when he gives tours around the museum, he likes to point out his pictures behind the glass cases.
“Badin was a great place to grow up,” he says. “I knew everybody in the town.”
Alcoa owned the town until 1990, when Badin was incorporated. But the company still leaves its mark.
Summerlin, a lifelong collector and auctioneer, gathered pieces of the town’s past for years. He had photos, aluminum pigs — even a fire truck from 1937. One day, Alcoa called the mayor and offered to give the city an old building where teachers had schooled kindergartners. The building was Summerlin’s to use for his collection as long as the city would pay to move the structure.
Summerlin won a $55,000 grant and moved the building to Nelson Park.
Within a couple of years, Summerlin persuaded Alcoa to donate 10,000 historic photos of the dams and the town. The company also dug out a fire-hose wagon from one of the first powerhouses and gave it to Summerlin.
As Summerlin looks at the photos that line the wall of his museum, he nods his head and smiles. “Alcoa’s been good to Badin,” he says.
Summerlin wants Badin to become a tourist town. He wants people to walk along the streets and wonder about the history of the old buildings, about the workers who used to see picture shows in the theater, about the old hospital and schoolhouse that are no longer there.
But for now, Badin is idle.
Waterfalls and willow trees
Badin sits at the most southern point of the dams — south of High Rock, Tuckertown, and Narrows, west of Falls. The Yadkin River flows south, stops at the dams, and continues its journey to the ocean. There are moments when the water gushes with enough force to drag a man under and drown him. There are waterfalls and rapids, rocky bottoms and jagged shorelines. But there are also moments of stillness and clarity. There are sunsets and weeping willow trees, mossy banks and fish the color of rainbows.
Like the Yadkin’s path, Badin’s journey is at times silent and at times busy with activity. You never know what’s around the bend.
Badin Historic Museum
60 Falls Road
Badin, N.C. 28009
Hours: Tuesday, 9 a.m.-noon, 1 p.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.-5 p.m.
Caron Myers is a freelance writer. Her most recent book is Captain Steven, The Little Pirate who Fought the Big C. She lives with her husband, Danny “Chocolate” Myers, in Davidson County. Her most recent story for Our State was “Rabbit Fever” (April 2012).