Despite being almost overshadowed by Hurricane Florence, more than 600 visitors helped celebrate the 65th Celebration of Philpott Dam on Sept. 22, at the Visitor Assistance Center in Bassett, Virginia.
Built 65 years ago after a catastrophic flood in 1937 caused significant damage in the Smith River Valley and sparked the need for flood prevention, Congress authorized the construction of Philpott Dam in 1944. By October of 1951, flood control was being provided and reassured people who lived along and near the Smith River that it was finally going to be tamed.
Today, people in the area still don’t take the dam for granted.
“The local public recognizes the importance of Philpott Dam and what it has done to protect property and lives, especially immediately after frequent heavy rain periods,” said Philpott Operations Manager Chris Powell. “Hurricane Florence came just a week prior to our 65th celebration which provided many teaching opportunities. Also, we keep and share many photos from the historical floods that reminds people what used to happen before the dam was built.”
Philpott Lake is well known for its scenic beauty and recreational benefits. Powell, who grew up in the area and started his career there in 2003, loves the lake and spends a lot of personal time enjoying all that it has to offer for him and his family.
“Philpott has always been labeled a hidden gem because it has always lived in the shadow of neighboring Smith Mountain Lake,” Powell said. “Development is limited which is not the case for Smith Mountain Lake which is managed by American Electric Power AEP. Philpott is definitely becoming a top tourist designation as it offers some of the best paddling waters, great fishing, abundant wildlife, aesthetic views and some of the best camping facilities in the state of Virginia.”
Powell said Philpott Dam reached its full potential in 1953 with the completion of the powerhouse and the start-up of three generators having a combined output of 14,100 kilowatts. Today, Philpott’s electrical power enters a sophisticated grid system which distributes the power where needed to satisfy the needs equivalent to 1,600 homes to the area. Powerhouse Operators control a delicate balance between the upstream and downstream sides of the 920-foot long, 220-foot high dam. At the top of the flood pool, Philpott Dam is holding back enough water to increase the lake size by 1000 acres. The operators carefully control the release of the extra water in the flood pool through generation or by opening the dam’s sluice gates, making room for the next flood. Powell said that significant technological advancements are on the horizon for Philpott Power House.
“Within the next few year the Philpott Powerhouse will undergo a complete rehab on the equipment that produces electricity,” said Powell. “The generators and turbines that are currently in the powerhouse are the original ones from the 1953 completion date. Upgrading this outdated equipment with new technology will give Philpott the ability to not only produce roughly 25 percent more electricity, but also have more variability in water releases.”
For 65 years the towns of Bassett, Martinsville and in the surrounding area have enjoyed the economic benefits of Philpott Lake. According to Powell, the lake averages more than 325,000 visits a year. In return, this creates a total of $8.5-million in spending within the local economy which provides more than 100 jobs. The recreational opportunities and scenery make it easy to understand Philpott’s appeal.
“People visit Philpott to get a tranquil feeling from getting away from their busy lifestyles,” Powell said. “Visitors are always amazed at the natural beauty and natural setting. The locals have started labeling Philpott as the Paddlers Paradise.”