Yarbrough Drive Steam Plant and Smokestack
Since at least 1996, Facilities Division has called the plant “Yarbrough Drive Steam Plant.” The drive, noted historian Doris King in 1987, was a “permanent memorial” to Louis Thomas Yarbrough, “a man whose love and loyalty to the institution were outstanding.”
Yarbrough was born on October 18, 1873 in Caswell County, North Carolina, according to his obituary. The graduate of a “one-teacher school,” Yarbrough enrolled with the college’s first class in 1889 on scholarship. AN reported he taught at NC State for four years after his graduation in 1893, then joined the US Post Office Department. Yarbrough spent over thirty-seven years with the mail service, first as a clerk, then as manager of the state capitol’s post office, and finally as an esteemed postal inspector. As inspector, he caught local thieves stealing mail and international criminals shipping fraudulent merchandise.
Yarbrough remained close to his alma mater, physically and socially. He settled on Hillsborough Street, where he offered an “Open House” for visiting alumni until his death in 1952, according to King. AN reported Yarbrough also chaired the Alumni Association’s “Necrology [obituary] Committee” and attended commencement ceremonies until at least 1945. Most importantly, Yarbrough helped his daughter Mary fall in love with and eventually attend NC State, where she became the first woman to earn a Master of Science from the college in 1927. Today, the smokestack named after Louis Yarbrough overlooks a courtyard named after Mary Yarbrough.
The iconic spot had humble beginnings, and since has reflected larger themes in US environmental history.
On February 8, 1924, The Technician newspaper announced North Carolina State College’s plans for its new power plant located seventy-five feet from the railroad tracks. A 175-foot-high smokestack was adjacent, eight feet in diameter. “The name of the college,” the newspaper wrote, “will be set in white brick near the top of the stack…visible to those approaching Raleigh from” the west. Since 1924, the school has constructed a street leading to the plant (Yarbrough Drive), has surrounded it with buildings (including Riddick and SAS Halls), and has reduced its environmental impact. The smokestack remains a lively landmark on campus.
Historian Alice Reagan explained there had been a power plant next to Page Hall since 1907. But as the 1926 college catalog noted, the North Carolina General Assembly funded five new campus buildings from 1921-1925. “A new power plant at the College became necessary to provide heat, light and power for the new construction,” The Alumni News (AN) reported in January 1924. Using a design by J.E. Sirrine, the school built the plant for $107,000 that year, according to blueprints and contracts. The construction process was unpleasant and dangerous: AN recalled how “mud was an ever-present commodity” while contractor J.A. Gardner installed steam tunnels, and The Technician reported that two construction workers fell more than fifteen feet on November 28, 1924 when the building’s scaffolding collapsed (both survived). By January 1925, reporters were relieved to see “small rolls of white smoke gently making their escape” as Gardner completed tests, and the smokestacks were fully operational by February.
From then on, the school improved and expanded the power plant about every ten years to keep up with heat and electricity demands, according to records from the Office of the University Architect. Sixty-two years after its construction, it was still going strong, and an article in Technician emphasized the diversity of activity on campus by listing that it powered “autoclaves, pasteurization equipment, soil sterilizers, a coal gasification project, and machinery in various labs.”
Not everyone praised the smokestack and plant, as reported occasionally in Technician. They made NC State look like a factory, complained one columnist in 1967. “Passengers riding through campus on the Amtrak trains probably think ‘cow college’ instead of ‘world-class university’ when they see the smokestack,” another argued in 1988. When the school’s name changed in 1965, however, a student urged the university not to remove “State College” from the smokestack to “visibly retain our gritty, yokel image.”
Campus community members in the 1970s, as many in the US with new concerns about the environment, objected to the impact of the coal-burning power plant. “The smoke stack still competes as one of Raleigh’s biggest polluters,” a Technician writer lamented in August of 1970. A month later, the North Carolina Board of Water and Air Resources ordered state agencies –including the university—to burn more efficient fuels in their power plants, like natural gas and oil. Students were not entirely satisfied with the school’s planned conversions. By October of 1971, two boilers still awaited conversion, and the City of Raleigh asked NC State to switch back to burning coal in all boilers during the winter to preserve natural gas. Nationwide, demand for natural gas exceeded supply in the 1970s, the Federal Energy Administration reported in 1975. That led to shortages like Raleigh’s. For some, the smokestack became a symbol of pollution; a Housing Advisory Board member complained in 1972, “we find State’s smokestack--an atavistic edifice of unpromising and, hopefully, short future--still belching forth bilious smoke on occasions of extreme cold.” By 1974, Facilities switched all the boilers to natural gas for about $327,200.
The students’ comments reflected statewide and national concern about air pollution. Health officials began documenting poor air quality and its toll on North Carolina’s humans and animals in the 1960s. The new studies overlapped with national “public concern and political initiatives,” according to researchers Charles Roe and Karl Rohr, so North Carolina politicians responded. The General Assembly and voters amended the state constitution to include an “Environmental Bill of Rights” on November 7, 1971. From then until 1985, the state government passed fifty-nine new environmental statutes, by legal scholar Milton Heath’s calculation. Still, businesses lobbied for and won the Hardison amendments in the late 1970s, blocking additional non-federal regulations.
In 2014, the university again addressed the plant’s environmental impact when it “increased capacity, performance, and reliability of steam production,” according to the Office of the University Architect. For $56 million, the school retrofitted the building, traded the three 1974 boilers for larger ones, and converted to a cleaner-burning oil, according to Technician. The modifications, designed by Jacobs Engineering Group and documented on the plant’s website, earned the building a LEED Silver certification.
The Yarbrough Drive Steam Plant and Smokestack have served the campus in different ways for different people. Beyond its main function as a source of power, the building has been (among other things) a symbol for the university’s humble origins and committed alumni, a wayfinding feature, a source of pride, and a metaphor for environmental damage.
**Note: The name “Yarbrough” was often misspelled as “Yarborough” in newspapers and school records. Researchers hoping to learn more about the plant or members of the Yarbrough family should search with both spellings.
Original Source References
Alvin Marcus Fountain Papers. MC 0007. Box 2, Folders and “Alumni Committee on Institutional History and Commemoration, Place Names, Research, Heating Plant, 1972;” “Alumni Committee on Institutional History and Commemoration, Place Names, Research, Power Plant, 1972.” Special Collections Research Center, NC State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
“Durhamite to Speak.” Durham Sun (Durham, N.C.), February 7, 1899, page 1. Newspapers.com. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/76082678.
Federal Energy Administration, Office of Policy and Analysis. “The Natural Gas Shortage: A Preliminary Report.” Washington, DC: Federal Energy Administration, 1975. Ron Nessen Papers. Box 10, Folder “Energy - Natural Gas Shortage.” Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan. https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/document/0204/1511759.pdf
G.A. Dees Cartoons. MC 0201. Flat folder 1. Special Collections Research Center, NC State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
“L.T. Yarbrough Dies Here.” News and Observer. (Raleigh, N.C.), March 25, 1952, page 4. Newspapers.com. Accessed October 9, 2020. http://www.newspapers.com/image/654741306.
“North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering Catalog, 1926-1927.” North Carolina State University. Course catalog (LD3928.A2253), Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries. Accessed October 9, 2020. "NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials." https://d.lib.ncsu.edu/collections/catalog/1928
Office of Alumni Relations Publications. UA010.200. Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries. Accessed October 9, 2020. "NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials."
Office of Finance and Administration, Facilities Division, Design and Construction Services Department Records. UA003.004. Box 116, Folder “Power Plant, 1924-1925 and 1948-1950.”
Office of Finance and Administration, Office of Finance and Business, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Records. UA003.005. Box 52, Folder “Yarbrough Steam Plant.” NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
Office of Finance and Administration, Office of the University Architect Records. UA003.026. Tubes 301A-301D. NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
“The Portrait of August Leazar.” Farmer and Mechanic. (Raleigh, N.C.), May 30, 1911, page 9. Newspapers.com. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://www.newspapers.com/image/57406902.
Technician. LH1.N6 T4. Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC. Accessed October 9, 2020. "NC State University Libraries’ Digital Collections: Rare and Unique Materials.”
University Archives Reference Collection, Biographical Files, UA 050.003. Box 61, Folders “Yarbrough, Louis,” and “Yarbrough, Mary.” NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
University Archives Reference Collection, University Buildings, Sites, Landmarks Files, UA 050.004. Box 7, Folder “Power Plant;” Box 9, Folders “Yarbrough Court,” “Yarbrough Plant,“ “Whistle,” “First Class.” NC State University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
Water Wheel Construction, MSS 0100. Box MSS 3, Folder 00100 -1. Special Collections Research Center, NC State University Libraries, Raleigh, NC.
Secondary Source References
Heath, Milton S Jr and Alex L. Hess III. “The Evolution of Modern North Carolina Environmental and Conservation Policy Legislation.” Campbell Law Review 29, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 533-589. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://scholarship.law.campbell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1454&context=clr
Lockmiller, David A. History of the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering of the University of North Carolina 1889-1939. Raleigh: General Alumni Association of the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering of the University of North Carolina, 1939.
Overton, Sam. “The history of the Yarbrough smokestack, a remnant of NC State’s pre-university days.” Technician (Raleigh, N.C.). September 20, 2020. http://www.technicianonline.com/arts_entertainment/article_bc38702e-fbac-11ea-8e7d-4f6cb8ee1147.html
Reagan, Alice Elizabeth. North Carolina State University, A Narrative History. Raleigh: North Carolina State University Foundation and North Carolina State University Alumni Association, 1987.
Roe, Charles and Karl Rohr. “Conservation Movement Part 3: Development of the Modern Environmental Movement.” In Encyclopedia of North Carolina, edited by William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. NCpedia. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://www.ncpedia.org/conservation-movement/modern-development
“Yarbrough Steam Plant.” Sustainability at NC State University. North Carolina State University. Accessed October 9, 2020. https://sustainability.ncsu.edu/campus/buildings/leed/yarbrough/.
University Architect, Office of the. “029 (029B)—Yarbrough Plant.” Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 2020. Emailed to author, 29 September, 2020.