The Legend of Harvey Couch

by Larry Brannan ([email protected]) 828 views 

It was 1911, and 34-year-old Columbia County Arkansas native Harvey Couch had sold his rapidly expanding North Louisiana Telephone Company for $1.5 million, the equivalent of almost $38 million today, and was looking for his next big entrepreneurial enterprise. That venture, starting with the purchase in 1914 of the only electric transmission line in the state between Malvern and Arkadelphia, would eventually evolve into the state’s largest utility company. Couch named it Arkansas Power and Light.

Born in 1877, Harvey was one of six children raised on a farm by his parents Tom and Mamie Couch. When his father could no longer farm, Harvey dropped out of school as a teenager to help support his family. His first real job earned him fifty cents a day at a local cotton gin, where he fired-up the steam engine and maintained its pressure.

It wasn’t long before Couch’s initiative to expand his horizons landed him job as a mail clerk riding the rails between Texarkana and St. Louis for a railroad company. Soon his sharp skills got him promoted to head clerk on the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, and it was there along the rails one day at a water-stop, his curiosity and innate business sense came together to plan his first company. He was 21.

According to accounts, Couch saw a construction crew raising a utility pole but it wasn’t for a telegraph line, rather for a new long-distance telephone system. His family had moved off the farm to Magnolia and Couch “saw a chance to help bring service to places like Magnolia.”

He paid another mail clerk fifty dollars to swap lines so he could clerk the Magnolia-north Louisiana route. Historians say Couch began his endeavor pretty much “empty handed” with the help of his brother, whom he made crew-leader, and a postmaster in Louisiana whom he enlisted as partner. They first built a telephone line from Bienville, Louisiana to Magnolia while he continued his mail run. It was the beginning of the North Louisiana Telephone Company (NLTC) and as the line expanded he eventually bought out his partner’s share.

By the time Couch sold NLTC to Southwestern Bell, it had spread to 1,500 miles of line in four states. With his experience and more than a million dollars earned to invest, this extraordinary entrepreneur and capitalist decided to do it all over again with a new venture. It would be another utility company, but this time with electric lines instead of telephone.

It started with the purchase of that twenty-two mile transmission line between Malvern and Arkadelphia, which only operated at night. Sixteen years later, Arkansas Power and Light had 3,000 miles of line serving cities and towns in 63 of the state’s 75 counties.

Decades later, AP&L became part of the Entergy Corporation and President and CEO of Entergy Arkansas, Hugh McDonald says Couch’s life and career is a quintessential Arkansas success story.

“Harvey Couch was continually looking for a way to bring power to the state of Arkansas. A pretty incredible story of a young man who came from humble roots and little formal education,” said McDonald.

“The tag line he used in the early days was ‘Helping Grow Arkansas.’ And growing the industrial base and adding power plants and creating jobs was part of his vision for improving economic development, something that we do everything that we can today. That’s certainly a legacy he started,” McDonald added.

As part of that legacy, Couch constructed Remmel Dam on the Ouachita River in Hot Spring County to generate the first hydroelectric power in Arkansas. The dam created Lake Catherine, named for his daughter. He also built Carpenter Dam on the river, which formed Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs. Both hydro-dams were built “using stones from the riverbanks and timber from the soon-to-be inundated lands.”

Couch’s electric company became vast as it spread to Louisiana and Mississippi. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas says, “Harvey Couch created three interconnected utility companies from scratch—AP&L, Mississippi Power and Light, and Louisiana Power and Light. He also built the first modern natural gas-fired power plant in the lower Mississippi Valley, near Monroe, Louisiana.”

As Couch’s empire and reputation grew, President Herbert Hoover reached out to this Arkansas industrialist in 1932 during the depths of the Great Depression. Hoover had organized the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and appointed Couch to its seven-member board. As one of its directors Couch moved to Washington D.C. and “served as supervisor of the public works section, overseeing budgets and encouraging the building of water and sewer systems, bridges, and electric lines.”

Harvey Couch’s electric companies would not be his last enterprise. In 1937 he acquired stock in the Kansas City Southern Railroad, and a year later assumed control. He combined it in 1939 with the Louisiana and Arkansas Railroad Company, which he had purchased in 1928. After the lines merged, his railway system stretched from New Orleans to Kansas City.

Couch passed away in 1941 from heart disease, a month before he would have turned 64. He often said one of his greatest influences was a grade school teacher in Magnolia, who extraordinarily went on to become governor of Texas and then later president of Baylor University.

Being much taller and older than his classmates Harvey had been placed in a lower grade. Because of his farm duties he had only been able to go to school a couple of months a year and was behind. Couch was embarrassed about his predicament and wanted to quit. He said that teacher and future governor, Pat Neff, wrote on the blackboard a lesson he never forgot: ‘A quitter never wins, and a winner never quits.’ Neff also told Harvey that “Men like you have built empires.”

Years later Couch would say, “Next to my mother, Pat Neff influenced me more than any other person.”

Asked how Couch might look at today’s corporate world of Entergy Arkansas powered in part by nuclear energy, McDonald said, “Given how Harvey Couch adapted and changed his strategies for thirty-five plus years while he ran the company, I would expect that he would see what has happened as a natural evolution in the industry. You have to adapt to those changes or you don’t survive. And that’s what he did. He adapted to changes, he found a way to make things work and to succeed.”