History of John H. Kerr (Buggs Island) Lake

John H. Kerr Dam
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The John H. Kerr (Buggs Island) Lake is the result of a dam that was built from 1947 through 1952 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a spot in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, on the Roanoke River a few hundred feet upstream from an island belonging to the descendants of Samuel Bugg.

Kerr Lake vs. Buggs Island Lake
It was known as the “Bugg’s Island Project” 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. Congressman Kerr managed to get the funding through Congress even after the $100-million price tag was cut from the budget by committee. Kerr was defeated in a primary just months before the dam was dedicated. And so, his colleagues in Congress named the project for him. Most official signs and most references in North Carolina call it Kerr Lake and the John H. Kerr dam (pronounced Car).

In Virginia, the state legislature — angered by the name imposed in Washington — required in 1952 that the body of water created by the dam shall “forever more” be known as Buggs Island Lake. In Virginia, you will still see signs for “Buggs Island Lake.” And even the state agency that regulates fishing calls it Buggs Island Lake. That’s the Virginia law!

Dam Construction
Construction began in March 1947. The dam was dedicated on October 3, 1952. The primary purpose of the dam was to prevent flooding of the Roanoke River in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. A flood there in August 1940, referred to as the “great flood,” did more than $5-million damage. In addition, the dam was to supply electric power and provide recreational opportunities. The Army Corps continues to operate the dam.

The site was selected because of the granite in the area that could support a large concrete dam. The dam was built in 53 sections called monoliths. A grouting tunnel or gallery was built in order to fill gaps between the dam and foundation with concrete. The spillway consists of 22-tainter gates for overflow and at the base of the dam, 6-sluice gates were installed to maintain downstream flows.

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. A village was constructed near to site for many of the workers. Only one or two of the buildings from that community still stand. But the area remains named “Castle Heights” for the castle symbol used by the Army Corps of Engineers. A spur railroad was constructed to the site in order to bring in supplies and especially the large turbines used for electric generation. There was also an ice plant on the site so the concrete could be cooled in order to properly harden.

With 2,100 men working around the clock each day it is believed that there were only four deaths. [Construction Photos]

According to the Army Corps, 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, they say, is $400 million.

The Lake
The resulting lake is the largest reservoir in Virginia by surface area. Upstream Smith Mountain Lake is Virginia’s largest by water volume. At its maximum capacity, Kerr/Buggs Island Lake is one of the largest reservoirs in the Southeastern United States. The lake has over 850 miles of shoreline and covers approximately 50,000 acres. It is located in parts of Vance, Granville, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and Mecklenburg, Charlotte, and Halifax counties in Virginia.

Kerr Lake’s full pool level is 300 feet above sea level, covering 76 square miles at this elevation. Lake levels usually fluctuate about 15 feet during each year. The highest elevation was 319.61 on April 29, 1987. The lowest was 280.23 on Feb. 3, 1956. The Army Corps of Engineers owns to the 320 foot elevation, so lakefront development is not close to the shoreline. Kerr Reservoir is over 100 feet deep at the dam with an average depth of about 30 feet.

From the outset, the Army Corps of Engineers promised Kerr Lake would be a major recreational attraction. And it has been. In the summer months, boaters and swimmers abound. There are campsites (some with electric and water hookups), beaches with designated swim areas, picnic areas, hiking and nature trails, 26 wildlife management areas and boat ramps and marinas. [Boating Ramps/Camping Facilities]

The Corps of Engineers manages four campgrounds and leases land to the states of North Carolina and Virginia which manage another eight campgrounds and there are private marinas as well. Use fees are charged at most recreation areas.

Fishing on the Lake
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries says the lake has one of the best largemouth bass fisheries in the country. Surveys on largemouth bass indicate high rates of reproduction and growth. Largemouth bass in the 2-4 pound range are typical, however, trophy bass greater than eight pounds are rare.

During spring, striped bass may be found in the upper end of the lake and in the river above the lake as fish travel upstream to spawn. During summer, habitat forces striped bass to be found in the lower end of the lake (the dam to about Buoy 9 and in the mouth of Nutbush Creek). Channel catfish have traditionally been the most sought after catfish at Buggs Island; however, flathead and blue catfish have become popular as well.

Buggs Island Lake is also one of Virginia’s best places to catch crappie. White perch are quickly becoming popular with anglers because they are abundant and can reach weights of nearly two pounds. [More Fishing Information]

Native Americans
The area flooded by Kerr Lake includes land once inhabited by the Occoneechee Indians (aka Occaneechi). Most lived on a four-mile-long island at the confluence of the Dan and Roanoke Rivers, near Clarksville, Virginia. That island was flooded by the creation of Kerr Lake. Their fields were on the north bank of the river, where they raised large crops of corn, having always on hand as a reserve a year’s supply. The Occaneechi were also prominent in the deerskin and fur trades with the Virginia and North Carolina colonists in the 1600s,

In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon, a wealthy Englishman and Virginia colonist who thought all of the Indians of the backcountry were enemies, convinced the Occaneechi to join his militia to wipe out a rival tribe, the Susquehannocks. Once the Susquehannocks were defeated, Bacon and his militia attacked the Occaneechi, who sustained losses so heavy the tribe could no longer defend its island village on the Roanoke. As a result, the Occaneechi fled south and established a new village on the Eno River, near present day Hillsborough, N.C. However, continuing contact with the Europeans led to more hardship for the Occaneechi, not only from warfare, but from infectious diseases introduced by Europeans and rum. The Occoneechee were Siouan-speaking, and thus related to the Saponi, Tutelo, Eno, and other Southeastern Siouan-language peoples.

Train Wreckage?
Also reportedly flooded by Kerr Lake is the wreckage of Engine Number 2 of the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad. Well before the lake, there was a towering 80 foot train trestle that crossed Nutbush Creek in Vance County. Historians say a forest fire had scorched the bridge, but it supposedly appeared safe. On March 27, 1918 the bridge collapsed as the train crossed. Two men died. Locals say the engine was never removed from the mud below the trestle. That area was flooded by Kerr Lake and reportedly some folks would dive down and ring the submerged locomotive’s bell!