At Dam No. 4, generation still can be simple

August 05, 1998

Dam #4 Power PlantBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photos: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Since 1909, the power of the Potomac River has been harnessed near here with the help of two simple ropes.

The thick hemp ropes, shipped from the Philippines, play a crucial role at Allegheny Power's hydroelectric station at Dam No. 4.

They connect each of two turbines, powered by rushing water, to wheels that turn electric generators.

The plant can generate enough electricity for about 1,600 homes.

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Gary HarbaughProduction Supervisor Gary Harbaugh is one of a handful of people who knows how to keep the plant humming.

When a thick rope breaks, as one is bound to do about every 18 months, its 1,250 feet unwind like a giant spool of thread.


It takes four people four hours to wind a new 1,127-pound rope around a large wheel with grooves designed to fit the 1 5/8-inch thick cord.

The two ends of rope must be spliced. Harbaugh does this by unraveling the ends, cutting some of the strands and weaving them together.

"It's really simple. I've done it so much I could do it in my sleep," said Harbaugh, 38, of Hagerstown.

Once on the wheel, the natural-colored rope turns black from the oil.

Harbaugh always keeps extra rope on hand because it takes two months to get a new one.

Few people still use this type of rope for anything. It is unique because it is made from four strands wound around a fifth. Most rope is made from three, eight or 12 strands, Harbaugh said.

Because the rope is hard to find and expensive - a new one costs $3,000 - Harbaugh has been looking for an alternative.

Nylon rope is out because it stretches too much, he said.

Hemp Ropes The plant uses the same James Leffel-brand turbines that were there from the beginning. One of them was rebuilt in 1993 using original prints and molds still on file with the company, Harbaugh said.

These days, there is less reliance on the two rope-driven generators and more on a third, modern generator added in 1990.

Being more efficient, the newer generator often is the only one that runs during the dry summer months when the water level drops, Harbaugh said.

The station is equipped with monitoring equipment that automatically shuts down the system when something goes wrong.

Until the 1960s, a full-time caretaker lived in a house near the station.

The generators are housed in the original stone station, built by Martinsburg Power Co. from 1906 to 1909.

George A. Rumsey, a direct descendant of steamboat inventor James Rumsey, helped design and build the power plant and its transmission lines.

The station generated power for the city of Martinsburg, W.Va., until the company went bankrupt and was sold to the Potomac Light and Power Co., now Allegheny Power, in 1916.

The dam has been there since the early 1830s, when the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Co. wanted to control water in the canal. Allegheny Power leases the dam from the National Park Service.

Damaged in a flood in 1857, the original log dam was rebuilt with stone.

The station has been flooded many times since, never sustaining serious damage.

The Dam No. 4 hydro plant has seen the heyday of water power come and go.

In 1920, hydroelectric power was responsible for about 30 percent of the nation's generating capacity and 40 percent of the energy supplied by electric systems, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

By the early 1960s, because of an increased reliance on fossil fuels, and because the best sites for hydroelectric power generation were already developed, hydro accounted for only about 20 percent of the capacity.

That dropped to 10 percent by 1996, the commission said.

The station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Allegheny Power plans to keep running it as long as it is cost-effective, said spokeswoman Midge Teahan.

"Old as it is, it does its job and that's what's important to us," she said.

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