The Curse of Lake Lanier
The following is a transcription of the audio from Southern Gothic: The Podcast.
Introduction: “Song of the Chattahoochie”
In November of 1877 Georgia born author, poet, and musician Sidney Lanier published what he considered to be the best poem he’d ever written, “Song of the Chattahoochee.” The lyrical work, written in a cadence to echo the rhythmic ebb and flow of the Chattahoochie, describes the river’s journey, from its start in Habersham County, to its end in Georgia’s East Gulf Coastal Plains, where the Chattahoochee River merges into another as they rush toward the Gulf of Mexico. Lanier skillfully describes the river in human-like motivations: it has a mission to achieve, to water the fields of Georgia and to provide power to the mills that line the river.
But less than a century after Lanier published his “Song of the Chattahoochee,” the landscape of Northern Georgia was permanently altered. Where once the River flowed through fertile hills and valleys, there is now nothing but water for miles in every direction. because in the mid-twentieth century, the Chattahoochee River was dammed and in its place Georgia’s largest lake was created… a body of water named for one of the state’s greatest poets...Sidney Lanier.
But Lake Sidney Lanier has a darker story than just man’s interference with nature…its what that interference caused, Lake Lanier is a story of destruction, death, underwater ghost towns, and the myth that this body of water may in fact be cursed.
ConstructiON of the Buford Dam
In 1946 the United States Army Corps of Engineers was charged with the task to dam the Chattahoochee River in order to create a reservoir, or man made lake, capable of providing hydroelectricity, navigation, and flood control of the River. This lake would also serve as a water supply for nearby Atlanta. However, before any work could commence on the project, the United States government had to purchase the land that would in only a few years time, become the bottom of the new lake. Land that had already been settled and developed. The first of these many transactions was in 1948 when Henry Shadburn, an 81-year old ferryman for Forsyth County, Georgia, sold his 100 acre farm, known as Shadburn’s Ferry, to the United States for $4,100. And over the following two years, the government continued to purchase more than fifty thousand acres total-- prime, fertile farm and bottom land from individuals and corporate businesses alike, and the land was cheap, most selling for about $50 an acre.
It is unknown how many families were bought out and relocated during this process, but estimates range from 250 -700, with additional reports that those who refused to sell had their land seized and were forcibly removed. Their homes left to be overtaken by water.
Construction of the Buford Dam finally began on March 1, 1950. It took six years and forty-five million dollars to complete, and by 1956 the backwaters of the Chattahoochee River began filling the once-dry crevices and valleys of the North Georgia Foothills. With each passing week...month...year...the water creeping closer and closer to what had become abandoned towns and homesteads, filling to such an immense proportion that the new Lake Lanier took between three to five years to reach its quote “full capacity” at 1071 feet above sea level. But by this time, most of the signs of past human habitation had been drowned by the water long before.
An Underwater Town
The destruction caused by Lake Lanier’s creation was more than just family homes, a total of 6 churches and 15 businesses were deconstructed, moved, and reconstructed elsewhere… and while the majority of these relocated buildings were wooden structures, those made of concrete and brick were abandoned, and left to be consumed by the rising waters. In addition, a total of 20 cemeteries had their remains disinterred and moved. Most were smaller, family based cemeteries, which were common in the northeast Georgia Hills at the time. But in spite of this effort to ensure that the dead were respected, it is unlikely that the residents of every small family cemetery were successfully relocated before the waters rose.
Today it is nearly impossible to determine and identify every single thing lost. Growing waters indiscriminately consumed everything in its path, from farmlands, fields, forests, and even another lake, named Lake Warner. Entire towns like Oscarville, Georgia, were consumed, its homes, businesses, roads, bridges, toll gates, and historical landmarks. The rusted remains of ferries, once used to transport residents across the Chattahoochee River and back again were even left to sit decaying along the lake’s bottom and on it’s shoreline. for it was easier to just leave them to rot than deal with their relocation. So there they remain, decaying remnants of a lost era.
But there is more to what was lost than merely inanimate structures, these places were places where people lived their everyday lives, and of the most memorable losses was the Looper Speedway, a half-mile dirt track once located off Old Cleveland Highway, at the point of what is now Laurel Park. The track was owned by Max Looper, and his nephew, Edwin Looper worked there in high-school. Edwin Looper once described his time there:
“We watered down the track before each race [...] you couldn’t race on Sundays in Gainseville back then, so they ran races on Saturdays. They mostly ran ‘39 Ford coupes, though one guy ran an old Plymouth.”
But these races stopped in the 1950s, as the backwaters of Lake Lanier creeped closer forcing the community’s beloved Speedway to close for good, lost only to memory until 2001, when a drought severe enough to drop the lake 15 feet below full capacity, allowed the top rows of Looper Speedway’s old concrete grandstand to briefly be exposed once again, an eerie reminder of a fading memory. Yet as the years go by, some believe that the destruction wrought in order to create Lake Lanier has cursed it.
The Curse of Lake Lanier
The Lake, becoming ever more infamous for an unusually high number of deaths that occur in the water, everything from boating accidents and drownings to cars sliding off the road and into the water for seemingly no obvious reason. Estimates put the number of deaths associated with Lake Lanier at about 675 since 1956; some years upwards of 20 have lost their lives in these waters. Numerous stories of boats capsizing after hitting something in the watert have been told, yet when the area is searched where the accident occurred, nothing of any significant size to cause the turmoil could be found. Others purport the occurrence of sudden, dangerous, rogue waves that seem to come from nowhere, capsize a boat, and then disappear.
Especially strange are many of the tragic stories of drownings. First, as they frequently occur close to shore and in calm water conditions, and second because many of the victims were people who were considered to be strong swimmers. And ominously enough, those who have survived near drowning in Lake Lanier have reported the feeling of being dragged beneath the water by invisible hands.
But for all of the tragic death, the most notorious is the Lady of Lake Lanier.
The Lady of the Lake
In April of 1958, Delia Mae Parker Young was purportedly traveling with Susie Roberts to The Three Gables, a local roadhouse, in Dawsonville, Georgia. Susie was driving her 1954 Ford, across the Lanier Bridge, when for some unknown reason she lost control of the car, crashing off the right abutment of the Bridge. Divers entered the lake and searched the area, but neither the vehicle nor any remains were discovered, the physical evidence of the occurrence was a set a skid marks suggesting that the women’s car went into the lake. Then, a year later, in 1959, a fisherman discovered human remains that had floated to the surface of the lake. Further examination yielded no obvious cause of death and the individual could not be positively identified, although the body was noted for missing both hands and several toes. Many assumed that these were the remains of either Delia or Susie, but at the time it was impossible to know for sure.
31 years passed before Susie Robert’s 1954 Ford was finally found, when in November of 1990, the lake bed was dredged in preparation to set the foundation for pillars of a new bridge. Unexpectedly the shell of a rusted out car was discovered with human remains still inside behind the wheel. Through the personal belongings found in the car-- a purse, rings, and a watch-- Susie Roberts was able to be identified, and in light of this discovery it was concluded that the young woman found decades before was in fact Delia Mae Parker Young. For three decades Susie Roberts was trapped in her car, hidden under 90-plus feet of water, having come to a rest on a steep slope, stuck within the tree trunks, mud, and other detritus that make up the bed of Lake Lanier…. But now she could finally be properly laid to rest.
It is this tragedy that has been the foundation of the most persistent legends associated with Lake Lanier… the apparition of a young woman in a blue dress that has purportedly been seen time and time again walking up and down the length of Lanier Bridge. And according to those who have seen this spirit...who has become known as the Lady of Lake Lanier...she is missing her hands.
Apparitions on the Lake
Another of the numerous apparitions to purportedly haunt Lake Lanier is that of a mysterious raft seen floating on the lake late at night, its inhabitant a shadowy figure pushing along with a pole, a lantern lighting his way. Those who have made claims to have seen this nautical apparition say it seems to appear and disappear from out of nowhere.
One such sighting was reported by two fisherman who claimed to have seen it at about 1am on a cold autumn night. The raft was spotted in a section of the lake that is known to be roughly 45 feet deep, yet the raft’s rider seemed to have no difficulty navigating the water with a pole to push him along. The two fisherman watched as the figure traveled along, before suddenly shouted and jumping from the raft into the freezing water. Afraid something was coming for them, the fisherman quickly pulled up their lines and prepared to leave the area ,but when they shined their lights across the water, there was no sign of the raft or the figure; the dark surface of the lake calm and undisturbed as if nothing large had ever disrupted them.
Those who believe this tale to be true, believe the mysterious figure was in fact an echo of the past, when men once traveled the shallow rivers and creeks among the foothills of Northern Georgia that have since been consumed by Lake Lanier.
Lake Lanier Today
Today, there is no doubt that Lake Sidney Lanier is an economic boon to the state of Georgia. A study conducted in 2000 by the Marine Trade Association of Metropolitan Atlanta estimated the economic impact of the Lake exceeded $5.5 billion annually; and since 1957, the powerhouse generators located at Buford Dam have alone produced more than $96 million in hydroelectricity. Additionally, the dam has successfully served as flood control for the region. Since it’s completion there have only been three major flood events, with the most severe in 2009 and the most recent in 2013. Lake Lanier also continues to play host to upwards of 8 million visitors annually, with 68 parks and recreation areas, 122 campgrounds with more than 1,200 campsites, 10 full-service marinas with restaurants, gas docks, pump-out stations, and boat storage.
It is the largest lake in the state of Georgia, at 26 miles long, with 692 miles of shoreline, covering more than 39,000 acres of water, reaching depths as great as 211 feet near the Buford Dam— deeper than the Statue of Liberty is tall.
Yet all of this beauty and prosperity has come at a cost. Families and communities were uprooted, human developments destroyed, and an incredibly high number of deaths have occurred in this man-made reservoir feeding into the mysterious legend that Lake Sidney Lanier may in fact be cursed.
Given how many number of deaths associated are with Lake Lanier in its 63 year history, typically estimating between 10 and 20 a year, it seems as though this lake has caused more death and destruction than you would expect. Is it cursed? This is up to whoever decides to swim in it, but for those that take the chance, just remember that beneath the water sit the ruins of several towns, derelict ships, and the remains of lives that once came before.