Located at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, between the towns of Marion and Morganton, Lake James is 1,200 feet above sea level. The lake was created between 1916 and 1923 with the construction of dams across the Catawba River and two tributaries, Paddy Creek and Linville River. These impoundments were connected by a broad canal to form a 6,812-acre body of water. Named for James B. Duke, founder of Duke Power Company, Lake James has been a hydroelectric unit for the power company since the early 1900s.
Lake James is one of the most recent additions to the North Carolina State Parks system. A result of strong local support and the efforts of area legislative delegations, the park was established in 1987 by the North Carolina General Assembly. Funds were appropriated for the purchase of 565 acres of land and for the initial phase of facility development. Lake James was the first park in the state's history to receive funds for development and operation upon its acquisition.