The old, coal-burning, steam-powered Arkansas Power and Light Company electrical generating plant — a Pine Bluff landmark between West Fourth and Fifth avenues and Ash and Locust streets — long ago ran out of current.
Now it’s running out of time.
The brick structure that dates back to before 1926 is being razed. A pair of smokestack towers easily visible from nearby University Avenue and other area streets will remain, in part as a monument to the building that once served as the city’s chief utility firm, providing electricity, natural gas and ice, along with streetcar service.
Dickey Ratliff of Pine Bluff has owned the property for the past 30 years or so. He and his brother originally acquired it from the estate of Ben Pearson, the late archery businessman and sportsman here.
Ratliff attempted to grant the property to the city of Pine Bluff this year, but the city council rejected the offer. The building at the site has deteriorated over the decades, yielding to vandals and the elements. Water had collected in the structure’s basement, making it even more hazardous. Finally, demolition seemed the only option.
Most current Pine Bluff residents are unfamiliar with the facility’s past, but the site holds personal memories for Pine Bluff’s Bob Rhinehart Jr., an 85-year old retired educator. His father, the late Bob Rhinehart Sr., was assigned to manage the plant in 1926, when AP&L (now Entergy) was formed with a merger of several smaller electric producers, including the Pine Bluff Company, and headquartered here.
The elder Rhinehart, an engineer who retired in 1965, gained popularity with his energetic work ethic and community service. Rhinehart Road here was named in his honor.
The younger Rhinehart said the local generating plant was built and in use before his father’s arrival. According to the late historian and author James W. Leslie, the city had had electrical service since the 1880s.
Bob Rhinehart Jr. remembers the old power plant from his childhood days, recalling several incidents, including one in which he sneaked a piece of chipped ice off a horse-drawn ice wagon. He said the facility continued as an ice house, gas plant and streetcar company for a few years after the AP&L purchase.
“I could ride the streetcars everywhere,” he laughed. “The drivers knew me and I didn’t have to pay. I got a free nickel pass.”
Entergy officials aren’t certain when the company ceased utilizing the building and sold it.
At the time Ratliff was seeking to deed the property to the city, Alderman Steven Mays wanted to utilize the towers for promotion. Mays envisioned painting one of the towers black and having the letters UAPB in gold from the top down as a means of touting the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He thought the other tower might be adorned with faces and names of past local achievers.
Mayor Debe Hollingsworth said recently that she thinks Mays’ idea “might be a good one.”
“Those towers could certainly attract some attention from motorists passing through our city,” said the mayor. “I’m not quite sure how we might get it done, but I do think they might present a good opportunity for the city to practice some self-promotion.”
Ratliff agrees, and said he would be supportive of whatever the city might want to do in such an effort.