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A major theme for the early twentieth-century history of the university and Chapel Hill —as it was for much of the United States —was the development of utilities. Both university and village grew steadily from the 1880s to 1930, adding students, faculty and staff, a new railroad line, and new residents and businesses. UNC made the transition from a liberal arts college focused on undergraduate education to a multipurpose university by adding graduate and professional study, research, publications, extension, and service to its mission. The population of Chapel Hill more than doubled, and the mill village that became Carrboro came into existence.

These new enterprises demanded new infrastructure: more buildings to house more students, new research labs, and new ways to move water and wastewater and to provide heat and light. UNC physics professor Joshua W. Gore built the first water plant in 1893. A steam pump moved water from a well south of Memorial Hall to storage tanks in the attic of South Building and then through underground pipes to showers, tubs, and toilets in the basement of Smith Hall (now historic Playmakers Theatre). Two years later Gore added a small electric lighting plant, and in 1901 he designed a new power plant built on the future site of Phillips Hall. For the first time steam heat and hot water were piped to campus buildings and sewage was piped away. Gore also installed and became co-owner of Chapel Hill's first telephone system.

In 1921 the university began to purchase land at the west end of Cameron Avenue, which eventually became the site of a power plant and laundry building. The laundry (now the Cheek/Clark Building) opened in 1921 and provided laundry and dry-cleaning services to students and town residents. The first power plant on the site opened in 1940.

As the university continued to expand campus utilities, it also extended service to the town of Chapel Hill. That ended in 1977, when Carolina sold all of its public utilities. Under an agreement with the state legislature negotiated by trustee Walter Royal Davis, the Chapel Hill campus kept most of the funds from the $40 million sale. This funded the construction of Davis Library and renovations to Wilson and Health Sciences Libraries. It also helped fund the plans for the cogeneration facility completed in 1986.

Today multiple systems handle utilities for the campus and UNC hospitals. The cogeneration facility produces steam for heating and hot water, while the electricity produced as a by-product helps to power electrical systems. Although it is powered by coal, the facility uses the latest technologies to minimize emissions and waste. The electric network consists of 820 electric and telecommunications manholes, tied together with 39 miles of duct bank, containing 68 miles of underground cable. Steam is distributed through an extensive network of underground steam and condensate return piping in excess of fifty miles. In partnership with Orange Water and Sewer Authority, the university operates a water reclamation and reuse system and a storm water system comprised of thousands of catch basins and inlets, miles of piping, and outfalls that discharge water into nearby creeks.

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