Cape Fear Plant: The energy giant’s heart is now silent, but its legacy lives on in the hearts of its keepers

By Kim Crawford

Moncure, NC – On June 5, 2015, a series of intricately laid charges detonated, ripping through the boilers of the once mighty Cape Fear Plant and turning the last vestiges of a by-gone era into a pile of twisted steel to be hauled away to the scrap yard.

While it was not the first implosion at the coal-fired facility, which had not produced power for Duke Energy customers since 2012, it brought about closure for Danny Wimberly. The Moncure, N.C. native, who spent nearly four decades working to keep Cape Fear plant running smoothly, is now overseeing its demolition.

“When the boilers came down, the realization hit me that it was really final,” Wimberly said. “Those boilers were the heart of the plant and were how we made power. The smokestacks (that came down earlier) would have been much easier to replace.”

Building a behemoth

The Cape Fear Plant, located in the unincorporated community of Moncure, N.C. (current population: 711), first began generating electricity to serve the Raleigh area in 1923. A second unit came online in 1924. Units 3 and 4 were added in 1943, just in time to meet the post-World War II construction boom, but were retired in 1977.

Cape Fear Station

Cape Fear Station in 1926

By the mid-1950s, growing electricity demand led Carolina Power and Light (CP&L – a predecessor of Duke Energy Progress) to add two larger units. Units 5 (1956) and 6 (1958) at Cape Fear produced 148 and 173 megawatts, respectively.

View of forms and reinforcing steel for stack foundation looking Southeast - Jan. 30, 1957

View of forms and reinforcing steel for stack foundation looking Southeast – Jan. 30, 1957

When units 5 and 6 were completed (both state of the industry at that time), Cape Fear Plant was the largest generating facility that CP&L owned. The plant operated 10 boilers turning six turbines producing a total of 478 megawatts of power, enough to power nearly 400,000 homes.
According to a 1956 article in The Raleigh Times, unit 5 alone used 1,200 tons of coal daily and 8,500 gallons of cooling water every minute from the Cape Fear River. The generator shipped to the site was the heaviest load ever carried by the Seaboard Airline Railroad.

Not just a power plant, but a community

Like many other industrial facilities built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cape Fear Plant was also home to many of its employees. CP&L constructed a village to house employees adjacent to the plant. In addition to homes for those who manned and maintained the boilers and other plant equipment, the Cape Fear village included a store and a clubhouse that doubled as a church.

Cape Fear Plant Employees

Cape Fear Plant Employees

Even though the village closed in 1968, Wimberly, who came to work at Cape Fear Plant in 1973 fresh out of high school, remembers a strong sense of community among employees.

“Cape Fear was not a group of individuals, but a family who stood by each other at all times,” he said. “When my father was in the hospital for an extended time, the plant folks raised money through a barbecue to help pay for his medical expenses. This is a sign of true friendship that can never be replaced. These memories will remain a part of the site and a part of our history as a company.”

Replacing the relics

Duke Energy is not alone in demolishing outdated power plants like Cape Fear. It’s a scene being played out across the country as utilities transition from aging coal- and oil-burning facilities to highly efficient natural gas and nuclear units and increased investment in renewable energy.

View of generator looking East while preparations are being made to skid generator off railroad car - Aug. 2, 1956

View of generator looking East while preparations are being made to skid generator off railroad car – Aug. 2, 1956

“This is an important step for the company as it shifts to more modern technology,” Wimberly said, “ but at the same time, it’s bittersweet to see the smokestacks and buildings of our legacy plants come crashing down.”

Demolition and site clearing at Cape Fear Plant is slated to be finished in 2016. For Wimberly, who grew up less than five miles from the plant, seeing the project through to completion is an important part of his 40-plus year legacy with Duke Energy and his community.

“I worked with or knew so many people who had ties to this plant from the beginning,” Wimberly said. “Safely closing and demolishing this facility is important to honoring the work that they did here to help this area grow.”