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Below the surface: How Lake Lanier came to be
Lake Lanier
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lake Sidney Lanier in the 1950s in conjunction with Buford Dam.

This article appears in the  September issue of  400 Life Magazine.

The Lake Sidney Lanier that many know today is always bouncing with excitement, especially during Georgia’s warmer months, as people from all over the state crowd the lake’s surrounding parks, campgrounds and marinas.

Families go to hang out and play at the parks, residents take their boats out either just for some fun in the sun or to spend a couple of hours fishing, people take time to exercise or relax on a walk down surrounding trails, and many travel across to Lake Lanier Islands for some leisurely golfing. 

As the sun beats down on North Georgia and families find themselves heading out to Lake Lanier to enjoy themselves, many may not know about the relics from the lake’s history that still sit waiting far beneath the surface.

Building Buford Dam

Robert David Coughlin, the author of “Storybook Site: The Early History and Construction of Buford Dam” and a former park ranger on the lake, said that he has met many people in North Georgia who did not realize that Lake Lanier is a man-made lake. The body of water has become such an integrated piece of the community, that it almost feels like it has just always been there.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lake Sidney Lanier in the 1950s in conjunction with Buford Dam. The project was part of a much larger mission across the U.S. directly after World War II to develop the nation’s waterways, according to a previous 400 Life story.

Coughlin said that the U.S. government sought out the construction of Lake Lanier and Buford Dam specifically to help provide a water source to residents near Atlanta, use the dam as a power source for surrounding homes, and help prevent flooding from the Chattahoochee River.

The Corps of Engineers was originally thinking of placing the dam in Roswell, but they ended up deciding on the current site because it was a more rural area at the time. Despite it being a rural area, though, the project was a huge undertaking, gaining attention from those all over the state.

Funding for the project was approved in 1949, and after both the lake and the dam were completely finished, the total cost of the project ended up being nearly $45 million, according to documents archived by the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County.

Local officials held a groundbreaking for Buford Dam in March 1950, and Coughlin said about 10,000 people gathered to watch then Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield, Cumming Mayor Roy Otwell and other leaders break ground at the site for the first time.

“It was a big deal here,” Coughlin said. “I mean, when they had the groundbreaking, it brought people from all over Georgia to the area to see them officially start a project. It was a big deal and a big change to the area.”

As the Corps of Engineers started construction, the entire area around the site in Forsyth, Hall, Gwinnett and Dawson counties started to change. All at once, Coughlin said that they started to reroute roads, rethink and reconstruct bridges, and start the process of buying up mostly farmland owned by residents at the time.

Nearly half of the cost of the multimillion-dollar project was spent buying land and relocating the families, churches and even gravesites that used to reside on the land that now makes up the bottom of Lake Lanier.

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Buford Dam
The powerhouse at Buford Dam under contruction in the spring of 1956.
Fast-moving change

The U.S. government set out to acquire the rights to more than 56,000 acres of land to make room for the 38,000-acre lake and nearly 700 miles of shoreline, and during the process, Coughlin said that 700 families in North Georgia were relocated.

Suddenly, the entire area seemed to be changing. 

The Corps of Engineers ended up shutting down or rerouting roads, replacing bridges and tearing down houses, barns, fences and other structures that were in the area that would later become Lake Lanier.

Martha McConnell, president of the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County, who was a little girl living in Cumming at the time, said that she remembers there being a thin layer of fear in the community surrounding the project. Even as roads started closing, she said it felt like they were almost being cut off from neighbors.

“That was one thing … people used to live side-by-side and then after the lake came in, they had to drive miles to be able to see each other or to go to church,” McConnell said. “It was inconvenient until people got used to it.”

Many others in the community had mixed feelings about the project as it impacted residents in different ways.

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Buford Dam
A look at construction on Buford Dam from June 24, 1955. The gates to the dam closed the following year, and the lake opened for business in the summer of 1957.
Public opinion

The acquisition of land in the area started in April 1954 when 81-year-old Henry Shadburn sold the deed to his land to the government for $4,100, according to an archived 400 Life article by the late Annette Bramblett, former Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County president.

“Had the Corps believed that all land acquisition would proceed as smoothly as the purchase from Shadburn, the engineers would have been in for a rude awakening,” Bramblett wrote.

As Coughlin pointed out, many of these families in North Georgia held their homes and land close to their heart as some of them had handed off their land to family through the generations. It was no surprise that, despite efforts to ask locals to convince others in the area of the project’s importance, some families still turned their backs away from plans for the dam and lake.

Several residents started civil action suits against the government, and Coughlin said some even refused to leave their homes.

“They had to remove someone by force,” Coughlin said. “They had to go in there with the sheriff and say, ‘You have to leave. You don’t have a choice.’”

Others realized that with the stripped away farmland, the area would see more industrial growth, and they saw it as more of an opportunity. Even for some forced out of their homes, Coughlin said that they were amazed by the amount they were able to sell their deeds for.

“In that particular time and that rural part of Georgia, the likelihood that someone was going to buy your property and pay that amount of money was probably pretty slim,” Coughlin said. “And some people, all of sudden, they were liquid for the first time in their entire life. They had never seen that kind of money before, and they’d look at it as a golden opportunity to go somewhere else and purchase maybe some property close by for less.”

Even though opinions in the community on the lake were mixed, as they started to slowly fill it starting in 1957, some could not help but get excited for the fun times that a large lake offers. 

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Lake Lanier
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Lake Sidney Lanier in the 1950s in conjunction with Buford Dam.
In the depths

Some residents even started swimming in it before the lake was finished despite warnings from the Corps of Engineers that it was dangerous because of floating debris and other structures sitting at the bottom of the lake. Swimmers would even snag their clothes on the tops of trees that rested just beneath the surface of the water.

Even today, there are concrete buildings, cars, parts of bridges and other debris in some of the deepest parts of Lake Lanier, but as the lake is full now, the Corps of Engineers suspects that these structures will never cause any harm to lake goers.

Rumors floating around in the community and online suggest that the entire town still sits beneath the lake, but Coughlin said that is not true. Anything that would cause a hazard was removed from the area before the lake was built, and Coughlin said this meant basically anything that could float. This means that any concrete buildings or other structures, wells and items made from heavy metals were likely left under the water.

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Lake Lanier
‘You can’t separate it’

Thinking back on the creation of Lake Lanier and Buford Dam now, Coughlin said it is hard to imagine where North Georgia would be now without the popular attraction.

It changed the metro Atlanta area in that it helped bring more money into the surrounding communities, it helped form new businesses, it drew in tourist attractions from other communities and states, and so much more.

Lake Lanier has become an inseparable part of the community, so much so that it has become easy for some to forget that it was not always there. 

“To take it away now, you couldn’t do it,” Coughlin said. “It’s interwoven into the community. You can’t separate it.”

Did you know....

• Approximately 84% of individuals who drown at Corps lakes were not wearing a life jacket. 

• Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.

• It takes only 60 seconds on average for an adult to drown and 20 seconds for children.

• Loaner life jackets are available at many Corps of Engineers parks.

   -U.S. Army Corp of Engineers

Lake Lanier
Lake Lanier