City Directories and History: In 2018, the Katawba Valley Land Trust offered a wonderful tour of their property at Great Falls, showing the remains of the Nitrolee Fertilizer Plant. This project was a remarkable undertaking that operated for several years before Duke closed the plant due to unreliable electrical currents.
The plant was named for William States Lee, General Manager and Engineer, and the process of extracting nitrogen from the air. Following the plants closure the nearby Nitrolee Dam was constructed using the same name.
The Fort Mill Times reported on July 29, 1915 – “Mr. John N. Carothers left Fort Mill last week for Washington DC, where he will take up electro – chemical work in the Bureau of Soils, under the supervision of the Dept. of Agriculture. For several years past he has had charge of the plant at Nitrolee, of the Southern Electro – Chemical Company.”
THE NITROLEE EXPERIMENT
Nestled in the woods next to Fishing Creek near Great Falls are the ruins of an experiment that briefly placed Great Falls in the forefront of technological development. Abandoned for over a century, the Nitrolee plant is now just a memory. In 1912, it was on the cutting edge of the new science of creating fertilizer on an industrial scale.
As the developed countries of the world expanded rapidly during the industrial revolution of the late 1800s, demand for fertilizer grew rapidly. Natural forms of fertilizer, such as manure and composting, could not keep up with the demand as agriculture began to expand to supply the growing population. Sources such as the guano deposits in Chile became the object of international rivalries and even a war. Phosphate deposits, including those in the South Carolina low country, were also exploited. However, new ways of producing fertilizer were needed.
Three competing methods were being developed in the early twentieth century, with research in Germany leading the way. These were a process using Cyanamid, the Haber-Bosch process developed by German scientists, and the electric arc process. This final process used large amounts of electricity to separate nitrogen from the air and create a useable nitrogen-based fertilizer.
In South Carolina, pioneers such as Dr. Gill Wylie and the Duke brothers had begun developing the hydroelectric resources of the Catawba River. Dams had been completed at India Hook in 1904 and at Great Falls in 1907. The Dukes planned to use most of the power generated to supply the textile mills which were sprouting along the river. However, there was still a surplus, and J. B. Duke and the company engineer William States Lee began working on methods of using the excess electricity. After several trips to Europe, Duke secured the North American patent for the best electric arc process. German engineers were imported, and a pilot plant was under construction by 1911. Specially fired bricks and porcelain conductors were imported from Germany. The plant was named “Nitrolee,” a combination of nitrogen and Lee in honor of William States Lee, the engineer. The plant began limited operations in 1912. It was successful in the sense that it created a usable and valuable product. However, it was soon realized that the electric arc process needed a dependable source of high levels of electric power on a constant basis. The Catawba River was subject to wide variations in river flow. The flow in the river during droughts was so reduced that the Nitrolee plant could not be supported. Constant stops and starts were not consistent with the operation of the nitrogen process. In 1915, the plant was closed.
In Europe, the Haber-Bosch process had been fine-tuned and soon became the dominant means of producing nitrogen-based fertilizers. As World War I loomed, the German government realized that, with some alterations, the process could be used to produce huge amounts of munitions. The German war machine was fueled by the conversion of the fertilizer plants to munitions use.
Shortly after the abandonment of the Nitrolee plant, the Southern Power Company (now Duke Energy) built a large hydroelectric plant on the Catawba River just east of the Nitrolee plant, which was located on Fishing Creek. This power plant, which is officially known as the Fishing Creek Hydro, is known locally as the Nitrolee hydro because of its proximity to the abandoned experimental plant.
Today, the land on which the ruins of the Nitrolee plant are located is owned by the Katawba Valley Land Trust. Duke Energy has plans for the development of a canoe-kayak launch facility on Fishing Creek which will use part of the property. The site of the Nitrolee plant will be made available for preservation and interpretation so that a new generation can learn about the time this lonely spot was on the forefront of world scientific progress.
Article researched and written by Paul M. Gettys, 11.26.18
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