Georgia’s largest urban greenspace environment is a series of parks that follow a 48-mile section of the Chattahoochee River from Buford Dam (which creates Lake Lanier) to the confluence of Peachtree Creek, west of downtown Atlanta. The river itself is home to waterfowl of almost every type that call inland Georgia home while the parks themselves have a significant amount of human history from early American Indian culture up to recent history.
When Jimmy Carter became President of the United States in 1977 talk began of creating a park in Atlanta to help protect and preserve the Chattahoochee River while giving residents a greenspace area similar in size to parks in New York, Washington and Philadelphia. Politicians like Sam Nunn joined environmentalists such as Jane Hurt Yarn to support the project and the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area was created on August_15, 1978 when Jimmy Carter signed the National Parks and Recreation Bill into law. The park originally was authorized to purchase 6300 acres of land along the Chattahoochee River. Later, the Act of October_30, 1984 allowed the park to increase the amount of land to 6,800 acres and in 1999 the land it was authorized to purchase expanded to its current 10,000 acres. Eminent domain does not play a role in any purchases; the land comes from willing sellers.
One of the first pieces of land purchased was Island Ford. Today the massive headquarters building of the National Park Service is located in the building that once was home to noted Jurist Samuel Hewlett, who was appointed a member of the Georgia Supreme Court on October 12, 1942 by Governor Eugene Talmadge. As a justice, Hewlett ruled on many important cases throughout his career and was a member of the Georgia delegation to 1948 Democratic Convention. The dark hewn lumber on the outside of the building was brought by Hewlett to Island Ford from the Okeefenokee Swamp and the inside features Stone Mountain gneiss.
According to the Organic Act of 1916 the mission of the National Park Service is to “…preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
The park has historically been comprised of 16 “units” encompassing approximately 6,800 acres of land. The units were assigned names that reflected the local community features and historical resources. There are other parks within these units, bringing the total number of parks to 20.
Settles Bridge (West end of Johnson Road)
McGinnis Ferry (undeveloped)
Suwanee Creek (undeveloped)
From an environmental point of view, the park is home to more than 800 species of unique plant life that require the river’s water to survive, one of the largest collection of these plants in any land managed by the Park Service. Because of this the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is managed to preserve the fragile environment that lets these plants grow. Management begins with the required continuous 6,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) water release from Lake Lanier dam that stabilizes water flow throughout the park and on downriver.
The floodplain forest, along with nearby ravine and bluff forests contain a variety of eastern hardwoods including red oak, pine, white oak, red and sugar maple, hickory, elm, beech and aspen. Underneath these canopy trees, you can find black cherry, sugarberry, ash and birch, both the common river birch and paper birch in slightly elevated areas. Beneath the understory trees watch at ground level for dogwood and native magnolia, boxwood or elder, hazelnut, wild raspberry, blackberry, and of course, poison ivy. In areas with varying degrees of sunlight, sedge and bentgrass are mixed with a variety of fern and wildflowers from goldenrod to impatiens.
Probably the most easily-spotted waterfowl on the river is the Canadian goose. On the verge of extinction 70 years ago, the goose is a popular visitor to the river, with large flocks arriving in the fall and leaving throughout the late winter and spring. A few take up year-round residence. Its telltale honk, resonating throughout the river valley, alerts visitors of its approach or presence. Another success story among the birds of the Chattahoochee River is the wood duck. Not as easily spotted as the goose, the wood duck’s demise dates back to the 19th century and was one of the first protected species in the United States. Today it too has rebounded, but is carefully watched by environmentalists. Other birds that are less common in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area include ospreys, cormorants, herons, and even bald eagles. On the riverbanks, watch for owls, hawks, and an occasional vulture.
Underneath the surface of the river, northern trout make the National Recreation Area its southernmost home, but are not native to the river in this area. They can live in the park only because the water from Lake Lanier releases is cold. Turtles can be easily spotted along the less-used banks of the river or warming themselves on a shoal. Keep an eye open for beaver, although these are almost always on one of the many tributaries protected by the park. Large mammals include deer,
Archeologists believe the Chattahoochee River Valley was inhabited by Archaic Indians, dating back to 6,000 BC, although only a few sites have been found. Woodland Indian sites have been found throughout the park and later Moundbuilder Indians left significant evidence of habitation, including their telltale mounds. Creek Indians inhabited the Chattahoochee in this area from 1600 AD until the early 1800’s when they were forced to move south and west by settlers encroaching on their land. About 1750 the Cherokee moved into the area and used the Chattahoochee River in the vicinity of the National Recreation Area as a border, first with the Creek Nation, then the state of Georgia in 1819. In spite of successfully defeating the encroaching whites in the United States Supreme Court, the Cherokee were forced west by the state of Georgia on the Trail of Tears in 1838.
One half of Jones Bridge remains
Among the earliest settlers in the area were some fairly well-known names in the Atlanta area – James Montgomery, Hardy Pace and James Powers. They began with ferries and mills, later expanding to include blacksmiths, gunsmiths and general merchandise, which they would sell to both settlers and Indians alike. With the demise of the Cherokee, others crossed the Chattahoochee and set up businesses like the paper mill in the aptly named Paper Mill unit of the park. More ferries crossed the river including Johnson Ferry and DeFoors (Montgomery) Ferry. In 1864 the Union Army crossed the Chattahoochee River at Sope Creek, in the Cochran Shoals unit. As the Union Army moved east, north of the river they captured Roswell Mill, adjacent to the Vickery Creek Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
Bridges replaced ferries after the Civil War, and two units are based on what remains of historic bridges. Settles Bridge, a popular canoe take-out and put-in has the remains of a pre-automotive bridge and Jones Bridge has the remains of half a pre-automotive bridge. Both were upgraded when cars became popular in the early 20th century to carry the heavier loads, but abandoned when the road-building projects in the 1920’s made them obsolete. Half of the Jones Bridge was dismantled in 1940 for an unknown reason.