Nighttime view of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia

What Is This “Kerr Lake” of Which You Speak?

On Friday, January 16, 2015, a story ran on the Associated Press (AP) wire reporting that Virginia State Senator Frank M. Ruff, Jr. had introduced legislation to permit state agencies to refer to Buggs Island Lake as “Kerr Lake” or the “John H. Kerr Reservoir.” The story was quickly picked up by several regional news outlets, including the Richmond Times-Dispatch, WRAL TV-5 out of Raleigh, North Carolina, and WTOP 103.5 FM out of Washington, D.C.  This legislation might seem somewhat random without knowing the historical background, so let’s delve into the sometimes controversial history behind the John H. Kerr Reservoir.

Life Before the Reservoir

The John H. Kerr Reservoir did not exist until the early 1950s. Before then, the most prominent geographic feature of the area was the long, winding path of the Staunton (or Roanoke) River and its various tributaries, like many riverine areas across the state. You can get an idea of what the area looked like before the reservoir was built by looking at Geo. B. Finch’s 1870 map of Mecklenburg County, Virginia.

The problem was that, in that part of Virginia and extending into North Carolina, much of the land along the river was relatively flat and low-lying—and therefore prone to flooding. In August 1940, a particularly severe flood, caused by tropical storms, devastated the area. In a 2012 article commemorating the sixty-year anniversary of the reservoir, the Mecklenburg Sun reported that the 1940 flood caused over $5 million of damage, including destroying 10,000 acres of cropland, sweeping countless livestock down the river, and destroying homes and industrial facilities alike, both in Southside Virginia and downstream in North Carolina.

Construction of the Reservoir

The devastating damage in the 1940 flood spurred Congress to take action. Led by Representative John H. Kerr (D-NC), the U.S. Congress enacted the Flood Control Act of 1944 as Public Law 78-534 (58 Stat. 887). The Flood Control Act of 1944 authorized the construction of the “Buggs Island Reservoir” “for the benefit of navigation and the control of destructive flood waters and other purposes,” such as generating hydroelectric power. The reservoir was named for Buggs Island, which was located only a few hundred feet downstream from the proposed dam. The Flood Control Act of 1944 became law on December 22, 1944.

However, the Buggs Island Reservoir project was placed in jeopardy (along with many other New Deal–era projects) two years later when the Republicans swept both the House and the Senate in the 1946 midterm elections. Construction on the dam began in March 1947, but, only four months later, during the debate on the War Department Civil Appropriation Act (H.R. 4002), newly appointed Public Works Committee Chairman George A. Dondero (R-MI) sought to cut funding for the Buggs Island Reservoir project in a bid to de-authorize it entirely. (See Volume 93 of the Congressional Record beginning on page 8146 for the transcript of the debate.) The consensus seems to be that Representative John H. Kerr was instrumental in working across party lines to ensure that adequate funding was provided for the reservoir project. Thus unimpeded, construction on the dam continued and was completed in 1952.

For a more in-depth exploration of the political climate at the time, as well as of the work involved in constructing the dam, see “The Project that Changed Everything,” published in the Mecklenburg Sun in 2012.

A New Name

But by the time that the project was completed, the U.S. Congress had decided on a different name for it. The year before the dam was completed, to honor Representative Kerr’s dedicated service to the reservoir project and to the U.S. Congress generally, Representative Louis C. Rabaut (D-MI) offered an amendment to the Civil Functions Appropriation Act, 1952, to rename the reservoir in Representative Kerr’s honor:

Provided further, That the project known as “Buggs Island Reservoir, Virginia and North Carolina,” shall hereafter be designated as the “John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir.”

See page 6505 of Volume 97 of the Congressional Record for the introduction of the amendment. In arguing for the amendment, members of the U.S. House of Representatives were rather effusive in their praise of Representative Kerr. Representative Clarence Cannon (D-MO), for example, delivered the following speech to the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union on June 13, 1951, the unedited (and much lengthier) version of which is printed on page 6505 of Volume 97 of the Congressional Record:

[Representative Kerr] has rendered notable service in many congressional fields. … Of course his greatest service has been in river and harbor work and flood-control development … He has been in charge of subcommittees and bills of this character longer than any Member of either House. … It was but natural that he should early see the vast possibilities for conservation of natural resources and development of needed power in the Carolina and Virginia area, and direct his attention and devote his time to the great project which is now nearing completion and for which he is solely responsible. … It is most appropriate that this giant plant, one of the assets of the Nation, a potential blessing to generations to come, should bear the name of the distinguished statesman who brought it into being. And it is even more appropriate that the House should thus confer this distinction upon a beloved colleague whom the Congress and the country so delight to honor.

Despite the House’s effusive praise for their colleague, the U.S. Senate initially opposed changing the name of the reservoir but later relented as part of a compromise. The Civil Functions Appropriation Act, 1952, became law on October 24, 1951 as Public Law 203 (65 Stat. 616), thus changing the name of Buggs Island Lake to the John H. Kerr Reservoir.

As an aside: Several of the more recent sources that I reviewed while writing this post claimed that Congress acted to honor Representative Kerr in this way after he lost his bid for reelection in North Carolina’s 1952 primary. I could find no support for this claim in the historical record. I suspect that this confusion results from the fact that the ceremony to dedicate the dam took place in October 3, 1952, a few months after Representative Kerr’s loss in the Democratic primary. As you have just seen, however, Congress had already renamed the dam and reservoir in honor of Representative Kerr back in 1951.

Virginia Cries Foul

Nonetheless, even if “the Congress and the country so delight[ed] to honor” Representative Kerr, the Virginia General Assembly was not pleased by Congress’s decision to change the name of a body of water, the majority of which is located in Virginia, to honor a U.S. Congressman from North Carolina. Virginia State Senator Albertis S. Harrison, Jr., in particular, spoke out against the name change. In response, Delegates C. W. Cleaton and B. M. Spencer introduced House Joint Resolution No. 51 in the Virginia House of Delegates on February 11, 1952. The resolution, after reciting some basic background information, reads as follows:

Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the House of Delegates, the Senate concurring, that the Commonwealth of Virginia hereby officially designates the lake above the dam built by the Federal government as “Buggs Island Lake”, by which name it shall hereafter be known.

Resolved, further, that all agencies of the State and local governments shall hereafter refer to such lake as Buggs Island Lake. Resolved, finally, that the appropriate agencies of the State are hereby directed to erect such markers, signs and other notices as will clearly inform the traveling public of the true and proper name of such lake.

The General Assembly passed the joint resolution unanimously.

There has been the occasional attempt to have Congress change the name back to Buggs Island Lake—see, for example, H.R. 9243, introduced in 1961 by Representative Watkins Abbitt (D-VA)—but the differing names of the reservoir have remained unchanged to the present day.

Why Change the Name Now?

The official name of the John H. Kerr Reservoir, as far as the Virginia state government is concerned, has been “Buggs Island Lake” for more than sixty years. So why should anyone bother to change the name now? Those sixty years of experience have provided two main reasons.

First, having different names for the same body of water is confusing. A potential tourist searching for information on the lake would find references to both Kerr Lake and Buggs Island Lake and, if he is not familiar with the area, might not even realize that they are, in reality, the same lake.

Secondly, the name “Buggs Island Lake” suggests that the lake is infested with mosquitoes and other insects. Obviously that is suboptimal from a marketing standpoint. (“Bugg” is actually the name of a prominent local family.)

You will notice that both of these concerns deal with tourism. The John H. Kerr Reservoir attracts a large number of visitors each year, and tourism drives the local economies to a noteworthy extent. In fact, both WSET TV-13 out of Lynchburg and the Mecklenburg Sun report that Senator Ruff introduced Senate Bill 972 at the request of local tourism officials, and the South Hill Enterprise quotes Senator Ruff as stating that the purpose of Senate Bill 972 is to clear up confusion among tourists.

Will Virginians Ever Call the Reservoir Anything but “Buggs Island Lake”?

And that brings us back to the legislation proposed by the good senator from Virginia’s 15th District, which encompasses the majority of Southside Virginia, including the region around the John H. Kerr Reservoir. The full text of Virginia Senate Bill 972 reads as follows:

Notwithstanding House Joint Resolution No. 51 (1952), all agencies of the Commonwealth and local government may also refer to Buggs Island Lake as the John H. Kerr Reservoir or Kerr Lake.

Will Virginia’s General Assembly pass Senate Bill 972? The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation, and Natural Resources on Saturday, January 10, 2015 for review. The committee reported its unanimous consent to the bill on Thursday, January 15, 2015, with twelve “yea” votes and one abstention. The Virginia Senate voted on Monday, January 19 to dispense with the Constitutionally required reading of the bill because, as the tally sheet for Monday’s vote indicates, the bill has been placed on the Senate’s “Uncontested Calendar.” There seems to be some support for the bill, or at least a lack of opposition.

Here it might be useful to revisit the AP story that I cited in the beginning of this post. That story poses the question, “So does this mean Virginia is ready to run up the white flag in the long-running tiff with its neighbor to the south?” The story answers that question by quoting Senator Ruff as stating, “I think everybody’s forgotten the war.” Aside from the local pride that the residents of Mecklenburg County and adjacent counties continue to feel in the “Buggs Island Lake” name—which, to clarify, would remain a permissible name for the reservoir—the controversy over the proper name for the John H. Kerr Reservoir, and the heated passions that it once stirred, are beginning to fade into the annals of history. Few people now know who John H. Kerr was, and the name of the reservoir really has no impact on the rich history of Buggs Island itself. (Remember that Buggs Island is a few hundred feet downstream from the reservoir and is not actually part of it.)

It would be folly to try to predict what the General Assembly will do—remember that the bill must still make its way through the House of Delegates, even if it is uncontested in the Senate—but perhaps the time has finally come to take the next step in the generations-long process of adjusting to the name used by both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the reservoir, and the State of North Carolina. The beauty of the Senate bill is that it allows any of the reservoir’s various names to be used rather than mandating any particular one, so ultimately the people of Mecklenburg County will be free to name it as they please. They very well might continue to call it Buggs Island Lake, just as portions of the Roanoke River are still known as the Staunton River—or it might become a footnote in history, remembered only by historians and those who stop to read historical markers. Only time will tell.

Stay tuned for more coverage as Senate Bill 972 works its way through the General Assembly.

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Derrick P. Fellows

Derrick P. Fellows is an attorney with Hawthorne & Hawthorne, P.C. in Victoria, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @dpfellows.