The Occoneechee Indians once lived in the Kerr Lake area until they were dispersed by Nathanial Bacon in 1676. Until that date, the Roanoke River was the main transportation and supply route for both Native Americans and early settlers. Constant, regular flooding of the river provided rich and productive farmland that sustained the area for generations.
Nestled in Virginia’s southern piedmont, the John H. Kerr Dam has provided pollution-free hydroelectric power and flood control to the Roanoke River Valley for over 50 years. During this time, not one major power outage was caused by equipment failure.
Construction began in March 1947, in a spot on the Roanoke River a few hundred feet upstream from an island belonging to the descendants of Samuel Bugg; hence, the “Bugg’s Island Project” was named during the construction years. The 82nd Congress passed Public Law 203, which renamed the project “John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir”, after the North Carolina Congressman instrumental in obtaining funding and approval for its construction. Virginians continue to refer to Kerr Lake as “Buggs Island Lake”.
With continuous construction, 700 men worked each of three shifts per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year for four and a half years. With 2,100 men working around the clock each day it is believed that there were only four deaths. The major contractors were Jones, Tompkins & Wright for construction of the dam and powerhouse substructure, and Donovan, Lovering, and Boyle for construction of the powerhouse and switchyard. There were many other contractors responsible for excavation, surveying, clearing wooded areas, furnishing concrete, moving cemeteries, furnishing equipment, and constructing an access railroad (the rails of which may be seen today).
Kerr Dam contains 624,000 cubic yards of concrete, 578,000 barrels of cement, and 1,200,000 tons of crushed stone and sand used for concrete aggregate. Its seven main generators average 425,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually. The cumulative flood damage savings since 1952 is over $400 million.
An operator is on duty twenty-four hours per day responsible for Kerr and, by remote control, the operation of Island Creek Pumping Station (near Clarksville) and Philpott Dam near Bassette, Virginia.
Today, Kerr Reservoir is abuzz with activities—boating, fishing, water sports, hunting, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping. The US Army Corps of Engineers, along with the State of North Carolina and the Commonwealth of Virginia manage the lands and waters for the people of the United States. Plans for the future include adding more bank fishing areas, completing the regional environmental education center, and continuing to provide recreational opportunities for the region.
Information obtained from: