Harvey C. Couch

Harvey Crowley Couch, (21 August 187730 July 1941) was an Arkansas entrepreneur who rose from very modest beginnings to control a regional utility and railroad empire. He is regarded as the father of Arkansas Power and Light Company and other electric utilities now part of Entergy, and helped to mold the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway and the Kansas City Southern Railway into a major transportation system.

Early life

Harvey Couch was born in tiny Calhoun in Columbia County in southern Arkansas. During his youth, he assisted his parents and younger siblings with the endless work associated with a small cotton farm. As his father's health deteriorated, the family moved to nearby Magnolia, the seat of Columbia County. In 1898, Couch successfully passed a correspondence course test, qualifying him to enter the Railway Mail Service, sorting mail in one of the many railway post office cars which criss-crossed the nation. Couch initially worked on a railway post office route on the St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern Railroad between St. Louis and Texarkana, then a Memphis and Texarkana run over the St. Louis Southwestern Railway, before getting an assignment south into Louisiana out of his home town of Magnolia.

Business career

While still working on the railway post office route from McNeil, Arkansas, into north Louisiana, Couch was exposed to the development of the long-distance telephone. In partnership with the postmasters of McNeil, and Bienville, Louisiana, Couch formed the North Louisiana Telephone Company. From this beginning just after the turn of the century, the company eventually constructed more than 1,500 miles of line, serving 50 exchanges in four states. In 1911, the company was sold to Southwestern Bell Telephone Company at a price which gave Couch a profit of over $1 million. His business interests in Louisiana brought Couch into political alliance with Huey Pierce Long, Jr., the flamboyant governor and United States senator.

By the time North Louisiana Telephone had been sold, Harvey Couch was already exploring the possibilities of developing a similar interconnected electric utility system. Both Malvern and Arkadelphia, had awarded franchises for citywide electric utilities, and in both cities, the utility companies had failed. Couch proposed a partnership with Arkansas Land & Lumber Company, a large sawmill operation in Malvern, whereby sawdust and waste material purchased from the sawmill would be used to fuel boilers, producing steam for two 550-kilowatt turbines to generate electric power. The new system, a predecessor of Arkansas Power and Light Company (AP&L), became operational on December 18, 1914, providing Malvern and Arkadelphia with 24-hour electric service for the first time. In 1916, AP&L's second generating plant was opened in Russellville, the seat of Pope County in north central Arkansas. The plant was located adjacent to a coal field which provided a steady supply of fuel.

Under the leadership of Harvey Couch, AP&L continued purchasing city utility systems and building electric transmission lines throughout Arkansas. As demand for electric power increased, Couch began formalizing plans for hydroelectric development on the Ouachita River. The first of several such dams, Remmel Dam, was completed in December 1924. As the electric utility industry continued to prosper and expand in Arkansas, Harvey Couch began to devote some attention to his earlier interest, railroading. A group of investors, led by Couch, gained control of the Louisiana and Arkansas Railway in early 1928. Couch became president of the Kansas City Southern Railway in 1939. Following Interstate Commerce Commission approval, the Kansas City Southern acquired the Louisiana and Arkansas, consolidating the separate railroad holdings of the Couch syndicate. Pete Couch, younger brother of Harvey Couch, assumed the presidency of both railroads.

In addition to his business interests, Harvey Couch continued in a variety of public service roles during the 1930s. The Great Depression dictated a greatly expanded government effort to encourage business, one such mechanism being the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). A board of seven directors was chosen to run the RFC, one of whom was Harvey Couch. Couch served as RFC director until he resigned in August 1934 to return to Arkansas. In 1936, Couch served as chairman of the Arkansas Centennial celebration and hosted U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, with whom Huey Long had quarreled, during FDR's visit to Arkansas.

Final chapter

In February 1940, Couch developed a severe case of the flu, and insisted on attending the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, even though he had not recovered. After the convention, he traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., where he suffered a heart attack. After several months of recuperation, he returned to Couchwood, his vacation estate located between Malvern and Hot Springs, Arkansas. The severity of Harvey Couch's condition was concealed from the public, and he continued as director of the state Polio Campaign even as his condition worsened. Havey Couch died at Couchwood from complications of cardiovascular disease. One of the diesel locomotives and a number of the cars from Couch's beloved Kansas City Southern - Louisiana and Arkansas streamliner, the "Southern Belle", were diverted to Pine Bluff, Arkansas to serve as a funeral train, carrying Couch's body from funeral services in Pine Bluff to Magnolia for burial.

The Democrat Couch was the father-in-law of Pratt C. Remmel, the only elected Republican to have served as mayor of Little Rock in the 20th century. Remmel, the mayor from 1951-1955, was descended from an old-line Republican family. Remmel's wife, Catherine Couch Remmel, is honored by the naming of Lake Catherine in Hot Springs.

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