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Herman Talmadge, Walter F. George, Richard B. Russell, William B. Hartsfield
On March 1, 1950 a group of men met in Buford, Georgia and seven of them each turned a spade-full of dirt over in what was a symbolic start to a project that was proposed shortly after construction began on Allatoona Dam in 1941 -- what would eventually be known as Lake Lanier (timeline of Lake Lanier). The meeting of these men was the culmination of effort by a large number of people from local communities, the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia and the federal government.
There was a good deal of disagreement over almost every aspect of the dam. Its uses (should it be designated to provide power, water or recreation?), its location (originally proposed to inundate Roswell), even its name (Lanier would be chosen after the start of construction). Many starting dates are given, from 1950 (dam construction begins) to 1959 (first time Lake Lanier reaches its "full" level of 1071 feet above sea level), 1946 (the date the Army Corps of Engineers was charged with developing the project on the Chattahoochee River, but in our minds the grand lake of the Southeast actually began with the first purchase of land in 1948. Owned by a relative of Forsyth County historian Don Shadburn, Shadburn's Ferry marked the first physical move towards creating what would be known as Lake Lanier.

Lake Laniers powerhouse channel
There were a number of political factors involved in building Lake Lanier. To the west, Allatoona Dam was nearing completion, and the people in the Coosa Valley were already feeling the benefits. Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield was an early, vocal supporter. He was aided in moving the project along by Senator Richard B. Russell, who served on the powerful Senate Appropriation Committee and could always be counted on for supporting hydroelectric projects. Governor Talmadge joined the group after his election in 1948.

Shadburn's Ferry would be only one piece of history destroyed by the creation of Lake Lanier. Also covered was the toll-gate run by James Vann as well as most of his Chattahoochee Plantation, the entrance to the Georgia Road (later known as the Old Federal Highway)
and a number of other ferries that crossed the Chattahoochee River. Many covered bridges were also lost, the most famous of which would be the original Brown's and the site of Keith's Bridge, which burned in March, 1953 and was not rebuilt.

View of the Chattahoochee from Browns Bridge
Wooden structures that would be covered by Lake Lanier's pool were removed. Concrete and brick structures were left in many cases. On a more personal level, graves were relocated, frequently from small, family graveyards that were common in these northeast Georgia hills.

The dam at Buford was more than just a political achievement. Technological advances had been made since the first dam built in 1902 just outside of Gainesville, Georgia and ironically covered by the completion of the new lake. Although the powerhouse would still need to tie to rock walls, engineers were confident that the river could be stopped with a series of "saddlebacks," dams created from gravel and dirt.

First, a channel was blasted and the powerhouse constructed. Then the Chattahoochee was diverted through the open gates of the powerhouse and the newly created channel while the saddlebacks were built. Once completed the saddlebacks were allowed to sit in place. Finally, on February 1, 1956the powerhouse gates were closed and Lake Lanier began the slow process of filling. In 1957 the first power was generated and in May, 1959 the lake reached its full level for the first time.

Lake Lanier Islands

In between, the Corps of Engineers worked with the state of Georgia to create Lake Lanier Islands. In 1962 the state carved the "islands" out of four partially flooded mountaintops and funded the venture through the Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority. The Authority was empowered to collect money on April 8, 1968 and in 1974 Lake Lanier Islands opened with Stouffer Hotels PineIsle Resort and Golf Club. The hotel served visitors for 31 years until it closed in 2005.

As part of Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris's 1986 "Georgia On My Mind" tourism program a new facility was added to Lake Lanier Islands. Emerald Point Resort and Golf Club opened in 1988. When this was complete work began on the highly successful Water Park. The Emerald Point facility was renovated and reopened as Legacy Lodge in 2008.

As part of a privatization plan proposed in 1995, KSL Recreation Corp. took over management of the Islands with a 50 year lease that would earn the state of Georgia 315 million dollars. Up until 1996, the state had been losing money on the venture. in 2005 LLI Management took over the leased operations.


One ongoing concern of the Army Corps of Engineers is the wildlife who use the Chattahoochee downstream from Buford Dam. Even before closing the dam to fill the lake, they had determined a minimum "continuous flow" requirement of 6.5 cubic feet per second to preserve wildlife habitat and breeding grounds. Water always flows into the Chattahoochee River from Buford Dam.

During the drought of 2008 the continuous flow requirement came under the scrutiny of politicians afraid that Lake Lanier would be unable to supply water for Atlanta. Rather than trying to mitigate water usage in Atlanta, the politicians chose to attack the CFR that had been in effect for almost 60 years.

Birders will find occasional sightings of Pine Warblers, Bonaparte Gulls, and Eared Grebes, probably the hardest birds to spot. Within the last five years there have been bald eagles sightings on Lake Lanier, although there has been a population of them for at least 10 years. A five-year program saw the release of Canadian geese on the lake and in surrounding areas, replenishing this breed. In addition to year-round visitors, Lake Lanier is home to 1,300 migratory birds.

Lady of the Lake

A horribly decomposed body of a woman was found in Lake Lanier in November, 1959, that could not be identified. Local papers dubbed her "The Lady In The Lake" but she remained unidentified for years. In 1990 workers building a new bridge on the Dawsonville Highway found the bones of a women in a car with 1958 Georgia plates. She was identified as Susie Roberts.

Suzie and a companion drove to a local roadhouse, Three Gables, where they enjoyed a few drinks. They then filled Suzie's car up at a gas station and left without paying. Suzie's identification gave local police a name for the "Lady of the Lake," Delia Mae Parker.

1996 Olympics

That Lake Lanier would be chosen as the rowing/canoeing/kayaking venue for the 1996 Olympics and nearby Gainesville would be chosen as host city was no forgone conclusion. The original site of the competition was Stone Mountain, east of Atlanta had been part of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games original bid. Luckily, the Stone Mountain Authority wanted a good deal of money to host the events.

The Olympic Committee was then allowed to chose between Rockdale County, southeast of Atlanta and Lake Lanier. Although Lanier was a longer drive the International Olympic Committee chose it as the venue. Parking was at Gainesville College in Oakwood and spectators were bussed to Clark's Bridge Road, where most of the events occurred.

Water Wars

Water from Georgia's Lake Lanier is also used by Alabama and Florida and since 1990 the three states have been arguing. When the lake was created, Congress established only three purposes for the federal reservoir: to control floods, float barges downstream and generate power. In 1990 Florida tried to get water to protect an endangered mussel. Alabama wanted water to operate a nuclear power plant.

In July, 2009 U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled that the Corps of Engineers cannot change the Congressional mandate - it would take an act of Congress to do that. Furthermore, he orders the state of Georgia to rollback to the 2000 levels. In 2010 Governor Sonny Perdue signed the first legislation to reduce Atlanta's demand on the aging water system. On January 12, 2011 new governor Nathan Deal set aside $46 million dollars to begin building regional reservoirs for Georgia. Three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Magnuson ruling, handing Georgia a victory.

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