Martinsville, Virginia


Discover Bassett, Virginia

The Bassett Heritage Festival will be held this weekend and it's the perfect time to visit and discover the rich history of this charming Virginia community.  At the northern end of Bassett, Virginia is Philpott Lake, a 3,000 acre aquatic wonderland for everyone to enjoy. Visitors to Philpott Lake nowadays can enjoy fishing, boating, hiking, camping and one of the most beautiful scenic views in Southern Virginia. Guests often have interesting questions to ask Rangers and Powerhouse staff about the dam's construction so to celebrate the heritage of Bassett we are sharing some of those questions, courtesy of retired Powerhouse Operator Bill Coe who was a Senior Electrical Person. Bill worked for the Federal Government for 37 years and 12 of that being at Philpott Lake prior to his retirement in 2004.


Q. How big is Philpott Dam? 

A. The Dam is concrete gravity built, 920' long, 220' high. The top of the dam is elevation 1,016', crest of the spillway is 985' and the river bed is 805'.


Fact: There is enough concrete in Philpott Dam to build 14 Washington Monuments and yes, it was poured one bucket at a time.


 Q. Are the bronze markers on top of the dam graves?

 A. No one fell in the concrete and was left there for all eternity. The bronze markers are survey markers to determine if the dam is level.  


Photo courtesy of Doss Photography 



Q. Why was Philpott Dam built?

A. The Smith River was prone to overflow its banks during heavy rains. Philpott was authorized and built under the Flood Control Act approved in 1944. Construction began in 1948 and flood control was provided by 1951. In November, 1953 all three generators in the powerhouse were completed and hydroelectric power generation began. 


Q. Are there graveyards under the water?

A. Yes, 19 of them. The bodies are not here though; they were disinterred and reburied at new locations in the summer of 1950. 


Historic photo of Smith River flooding courtesy of Bassett Historical Center 


Q. Is there an elevator inside Philpott Dam for employees? 

A.  Nope, no elevator or escalator at Philpott. Try 287 steps here and 264 steps on the north staircase. Add in eight stories down to the spillway and eight stories back up. All total, that walk is 22 stories up, 16 stories down and up the spillway, and 22 stories back down the other staircase in addition to the walk on top of the dam. The "Grand Ole Lady" wants you to earn your money!"


Q. Why does the horn blow?

A. Before the generator starts, 96 protective relays are launched. The fisherman warning horn will blow for four minutes to tell all the fisher people to get out of the water, since the water will rise about two feet. There is a one-minute delay and another horn, but this time inside. It's a turbine pit warning horn that blows for 30 seconds to tell my partner and me that we had better get out of there because the generator is going to start turning. After that, there is another 30-second delay in which all the other protective relays ensure all is okay before starting a unit. All relays are wired in a configuration called "fail safe" which means the unit isn't going to start unless everything is exactly right. 


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