A popular stop on any NC State tour is in front of the Yarbrough Steam Plant, complete with a quick look upwards at the iconic “State College” insignia and thousands of prospective students wondering, “Just how old is that thing?”
It is nearly a century old, according to Tim Peeler, communication strategist for University Communications.
“This one that is currently standing was built in 1925,” Peeler said. “It’s stood there since that time.”
In its long and illustrious history, the Yarbrough Steam Plant has undergone renovations, the environmental movement of the 1970s and university name changes that put the denotation of “State College” out-of-date.
According to Todd Kosmerick, the university archivist, the steam plant was originally used to heat buildings throughout the campus.
“All those early buildings had radiators in them, and not the kind of forced air HVAC systems that we have today,” Kosmerick said.
Since then, NC State has converted to other power sources on campus, embracing the environmental movement in the 1970s and switching from coal to a cleaner alternative.
“We do have photos of nasty black smoke coming out of the chimney from those early days,” Kosmerick said. “At some point, they would have converted from using coal to some other source. My guess would be natural gas.”
The sprawl of campus also contributed to the need for more heat sources. As construction began to spread out, so did the need for additional power plants to distribute heat throughout the buildings. According to Peeler, the University redid physical plants in the early 2000s in order to accommodate the extension of campus borders.
When the smokestack was built in 1925, NC State was known as the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering, better known as State College by its students and alumni. Between 1963 and 1965, the UNC Board of Governors wanted to make a shocking change to the name of the University to UNC-Raleigh, Peeler said.
The compromise, which lasted all of two years, was a boisterously long title: North Carolina State College of the University of North Carolina at Raleigh (NCSUNC-R).
“As you can imagine, there was a big outcry against that,” Kosmerick said. “Nobody at [NC] State wanted to be a part of UNC.”
After two years of protests and argument, NCSUNC-R — try saying that 10 times fast — became the university we know and love today: North Carolina State University. Despite these changes, the Yarbrough smokestack retained its bold “State College” insignia.
“There were some people who didn’t really like the smokestack remaining that said ‘State College’,” Peeler said. “It was seen as a derogatory name to some people, especially once it had achieved university status in the mid-1960s.”
However, Peeler said it would be extremely difficult to change the facade of the smokestack.
“It’s all built into the woodwork, so it would have to come down from the bottom and built up from there,” Peeler said.
The Yarbrough smokestack wasn’t the only one on campus in its time, either. In the first half of the 20th century, there was a building centered around the ceramic engineering program. Demolished in the 1960s, Poe Hall was built on top of it, and ceramic engineering was swallowed into materials science and engineering at NC State.
“[The ceramics building] did have a nice big smokestack attached because of the kilns,” Kosmerick said.
The smokestack has even developed some of its own lore. Beginning in 1989, rumors of students falling to an unsightly death in the smokestack were rampant. Peeler said these urban legends may have been based in fact.
“While not exactly accurate, that has some basis in a terrible, tragic incident on campus,” Peeler said.
According to Peeler, in the spring of 1989, two students found an open doorway at the base of the smokestack and climbed close to the top of the ladder inside, where one tragically fell to their death.
Today, the smokestack and the connecting steam plant is still used to heat parts of campus. According to their website, “Beginning in 2012, the building was renovated to update the boilers and related mechanical systems and controls, improving their energy efficiency as well as repairing the historic building envelope.”