Power to the People

October 8, 2020

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes, it takes the child to raise the village.

Toward summer’s end, the children of Village of Power, W.Va., gathered to dedicate a park memorializing their now long-gone hometown. It was the culmination of a dream more than three years in the making, made possible with the assistance of FirstEnergy.

“A lot of people grew up in Power. They raised families, worked at the power plant,” recalled Susan Cunningham, who spent her formative years as what she calls a “Power Kid.” “It was a thriving village… a perfect slice of Americana. We never thought that it would be gone.”

The Village of Power was created in 1917. With World War I raging, the West Penn and Central Power Co., predecessor to FirstEnergy’s West Penn Power, joined with the American Gas and Electrical System to build a massive power plant on the banks of the Ohio River, in what is now Beech Bottom, W.Va. The plant was an engineering and mechanical marvel of the early days of electrification. It was the first major power plant built with direct connection to a coal mine. Via the nation’s first long-distance 138-kilovolt (kV) transmission line, the plant supplied power to northeast Ohio steel mills and manufacturing hubs producing arms and equipment for the Allies.

To house workers, an entire village was built along with the power plant, with hundreds of employees and their families living in company-owned homes.

“It wasn’t what many people today think of as a ‘company town,’” said Becky Uhlly, who grew up in Power and today is mayor of Beech Bottom, W.Va., which encompasses the area that once was Power. “It was a prosperous, self-sustaining community.”

By the 1940s, Power included a post office, community center, restaurant, barber shop, doctors’ office and a general store where power plant employees and their families could buy on credit. The village even had its own baseball team, bowling alley, newspaper and a streetcar line for commuting to the plant and around town.

But by 1973, it was all gone. New technology and environmental regulations rendered the once state-of-the-art power plant obsolete. The plant closed, workers retired or took other jobs. The power plant was razed. And the entire Village of Power was demolished along with it.

“A lot of people who grew up there say their grandkids don’t believe there ever was a Village of Power, because there’s nothing left,” said Uhlly, “just woods on both sides of the road.”

(L.) Kimbery Bozenske and fellow “Power Kids” pose in their dance recital costumes in the early 1960s. (Photo courtesy Kimberly Bozenske)​. (R.) The power plant, with a portion of the Village of Power across the road (now the site of the new memorial park).

Over the years, former residents continued to gather at a local restaurant, and as the 100th anniversary of their now-vanished hometown approached, they came up with an idea.

“About 20 of us got together. We were talking, remembering our home,” said Susan, “and we came up with the idea of building a roadside park as a memorial to those who lived and worked in Power.” The idea took root and grew.

“We started with a historic marker, and some benches,” said Susan. “We discovered that when the village was torn down, one of the residents had salvaged the brass plaque from the town veteran’s memorial and kept it in their basement. We decided to recreate the monument and put in a lighted flagpole.”

That’s where FirstEnergy came in.

“The property where the village was is still ​owned by FirstEnergy,” said Becky. “The town of Beech Bottom approached FirstEnergy with a proposal to lease the land on the condition Beech Bottom provides the insurance and upkeep.”

Now-retired External Affairs Director Allen Staggers arranged for a nominal fee lease. And more: “I thought a historic park was a fantastic idea,” he said. “So much of northern West Virginia’s history is entwined with FirstEnergy and its predecessor companies.”

Becky added: “Allen suggested that we apply through our regional nonprofit for a grant from the FirstEnergy Foundation.”

The foundation donated $2,500. “That donation enabled us to get the ball rolling and make the park a reality,” Susan said.

The West Virginia Department of Highways approved a roadside historic marker. Volunteers cleared land and recreated the village veteran’s memorial using the salvaged plaque and bricks scavenged from the remnants of buried village streets. Susan created a social media group – ​People of the Village of Power – to spread the word among former residents now scattered across the country.

The Veteran’s Memorial was recreated using a bronze plaque salvaged from the original monument when the village was razed, and bricks scavenged from old village streets now covered by woods.

“When we were drilling to set the flagpole, we struck the original foundation of the village post office, near where the store and restaurant were, right in the center of town,” Susan said. “And I knew we were home.”

In late August, former residents of the Village of Power gathered to dedicate the memorial park. It was a rainy Saturday, with masks and social distancing. But nothing could diminish the joy.

Seventy-four-year-old Marine Corps veteran and Power Kid Jack Ernest gave the keynote speech: “I was born right where those SUVs are sitting now. We’re standing where our restaurant, post office and grocery store once stood. Across the street was the gigantic power plant that employed our dads or moms. Growing up in Power, we were taught morals. We were taught values. We were safe. When the streetlights came on in our little Village of Power, you headed home. I enjoyed a childhood that was second to none. Unless you were a part of it, you just can’t imagine how great it was. If you were a Power Kid, you had something so very special. It will never be replicated.”​