50 miles northeast of Atlanta, in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lies a lake that shouldn’t exist. One that draws millions of visitors each year. One that doesn’t let all of those visitors leave.
Since its opening in 1956, some 700 people have died in its waters, over 200 since 1994 alone. A father of two was the latest victim just a few days ago; He jumped off a jetski and never resurfaced. 8 others entered its waters this year and never returned to shore.
It was created by man in the 1950’s to push the area into the future; Its aim was to stop the Chattahoochee River from flooding the Atlanta metro and provide water and energy to the surrounding area. In many ways it was an extraordinary success, but a dark history is hidden beneath the veneer of a beautiful recreational area.
The 59 square mile reservoir lives on top of land bloodied with violence and tragedy. Maybe the engineers thought the waters of this new lake would wash that past away, but instead it sealed memories many have tried to move past inside its 690 miles of shoreline.
50,000 acres of farmland, homes of 700 families, businesses, 20 cemeteries, and a Native American burial site lay at its bottom, and despite claims that everything was removed before it was flooded over, many facts suggest the remnants of the past are alive and well, lurking under the water’s surface for one of the 11 million annual visitors to go just a bit too far, and when they do, the past rises up and takes another victim to remind us all that it still exists.
Welcome to “The Cursed Lake of Georgia.” Welcome to Lake Lanier.
Before The Lake: A Land Of Tragedy
While no land in any part of the world is free from past horrors, is seems the land Lake Lanier is situated on was home to more than its fair share of tragedies.
The Cherokee Nation, one of the most populous native tribes during the 18th century, had long lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains, including the northern third of Georgia. Colonialism and expansion of both European and American settlements caused many disputes and conflicts between the natives and settlers, and despite signing multiple treaties with both the British and American Governments, it was eventually decided by the US that this large native tribe couldn’t remain in their native north Georgia location in the 1830’s.
In 1838, the US military, at the order of President Andrew Jackson, began enforcing the controversial Indian Removal Act of 1830, which had more or less been hung up in court and used as a bargaining chip during US and Cherokee negotiations.
The Cherokee People of north Georgia were rounded up and forced west to a plot of land designated for them in Oklahoma. More than 4,000 Cherokee natives died during this journey, which we remember as the “Trail Of Tears”.
Upon the native’s removal, many settlers began purchasing land and trying to set up farms and small communities. It was relatively successful and the land began to be prosperous, for some.
At the onset of the Civil War, some 890 slaves were owned in Forsyth County, around 11% of the population. While no battles were fought within Forsyth, the county was home to many Confederate hospitals, where some 20,000 Rebels were treated for injuries and illness. At least 299 soldiers died at these hospitals and are buried in unmarked graves in the county.
After the Civil War ended and Reconstruction ran its course, things started improving for the newly freed black population in the area now swallowed up by Lake Lanier. This included a few towns, like Sevier, Storeville, and Oscarville, and while the two formers’ history has been lost to time, the story of Oscarville is well known.
In the early 1900’s, Oscarville was turning into a beacon of hope for African Americans throughout the southern parts of the country. Dozens of families had their own homes, many businesses were popping up, and things were generally good for all residents.
But there was still an undeniable undercurrent of racial tension between this small but growing community of black and nearby white residents, and in September 1912, two separate incidents occurred in quick succession that blew up all the progress that had been made.
First, a white woman reported being awoken in her home with a black man standing in her bedroom. Then, just a few days later, a white teenager named Mae Crow was beaten and raped while walking through a wooded area. She later died from her injuries, but before she passed was able to identify one of the men she believed to be responsible for the crime.
24 year old Rob Edwards was arrested and put in jail but shortly after was dragged from his cell by a crowd of enraged white residents and shot, beaten with crowbars, and dragged by a noose around his neck from the back of a wagon, before being hung publicly in the Oscarville town square.
Two other young men, 16 year old Ernest Knox and 18 year old Oscar Daniel, were later charged, arrested, and tried for their part in the crime. They were both hung after a one-day trial.
This was far from the end of the fallout though, as armed mobs, called “Night Riders”, went on a rampage throughout Oscarville, trying to force every single black resident from their homes in an attempt to make Forsyth County all white.
The town of Oscarville went from an up and coming area where the downtrodden could look to for inspiration to yet another horrific tragedy that cursed the grounds of Forsyth County forever.
Lake Lanier sits on top of land where “Trail of Tears” began, where slaves were beaten and killed, where hundreds of Confederate soldiers breathed their last breath, where three young men were lynched after a woman was raped, and where an up and coming community was overrun and destroyed by bigoted mobs.
The Flood That Built The Lake
As the years went on, progress, for some, continued in the area. Atlanta and its surrounding metro continued to boom and both industry and communities thrived.
But as more and more people moved in, it became clear there needed to be some infrastructural changes to support the growing population.
Oddly enough, north Georgia has no natural lakes. The main body of water in the region is the Chattahoochee River, but given its tendency to flood during times of rain and to recede during droughts, officials began weighing options on how to support the growing city and surrounding farm land.
In 1946, a $1 Billion project (~$15.8 Billion today) was authorized by Congress to build a dam on the Chattahoochee River and purchased, through Eminent Domain, some 56,000 acres of nearby farmland, which would be flooded to create a lake.
Some 700 families in the area were forced from their homes and were paid much less than their property would go on to be worth. The US Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the project and was tasked with removing the infrastructure that was in place to create a safe environment for the lake.
However, despite statements saying everything was removed, it remains pretty evident that much was left behind to be swallowed up by the flood waters that would occur when the dam was closed in 1956.
The remnants of Oscarville were completely wiped out, including a race track, 15 businesses, 6 churches, and, most eerily, 20 cemeteries. During the construction of the lake, it was also discovered that a Cherokee burial site, named Summerour Mound, was in the middle of the floodplan. No efforts were made to move the remains of these long buried natives.
Divers have gone to the bottom and seen the remains of these communities, which include gravestones, streets, intact houses, huge trees, bridges, and cars, frozen in time when the waters swept in.
On the surface, the creation of the lake looked to be a resounding success, but under the surface quite literally lies the graves of those pushed out many times in the name of progress. The remains of towns, farms, lives, and people are very present in the minds of those who live near and visit Lake Lanier.
The Lady Of Lake Lanier
Since the lake opened in 1956, around 700 people have died in its waters in very mysterious circumstances, with most deaths remaining unexplained and unsolved, but it took just one incident that occurred only two years after the lake was finished to make people believe Lake Lanier held something more than just old buildings.
Delia Mae Parker Young and her friend Susie Roberts had decided to visit Three Gables Roadhouse in Dawsonville and had to cross the Lake Lanier bridge to get there. They were supposed to meet up with friends, but never arrived.
Officials began searching for the two lost girls but there was no evidence of either woman or their car, that is until 18 months later when a fisherman spotted a body floating in the water.
It was a gruesome scene; The body was missing two toes and both hands. Coroners were unable to identify the body, but the town people knew it must have been Delia Parker Young.
How did they know this? After the girls had disappeared, dozens of drivers had reported seeing a ghostly, handless woman walking aimlessly down the highway in a blue dress.
The same dress she had borrowed from a friend to go out that night.
It would be 34 years before the body of Susie Roberts was found. Construction crews located a car at the bottom of the lake when they went to replace the old, worn down bridge in 1990. Her bones were still strapped into the 1954 Ford they had disappeared in.
To this day, some people still say they catch glimpses of the Lady of Lake Lanier walking the backroads of State Route 53, but it’s far from the only strange thing that still happens on Lanier’s waters.
Lake Lanier Today
To this day, Lake Lanier remains a mystery of sorts.
Endless people report feeling drained when entering its water to swim. Thousands of people have had to be rescued, including lifeguards and those in great shape, who later say they felt arms reaching out to grab them and a heaviness they couldn’t shake.
Just this year, 9 people have drown in Lake Lanier. Many were longtime residents or users of the lake. Many were in shape and young.
Things are so dangerous that a local resort banned swimming on its beach this summer. The local rescue team has stopped using human divers and will now only utilize a robot to try and locate lost swimmers.
It’s possible that all of this is due to people having too much to drink and taking on more than they can handle in the water.
It’s possible that the number of people who visit every year is so high that their are bound to be a number of accidents.
But it’s also possible that the land that saw so much tragedy still contains the spirit of those who fought oppression, who were lynched, who were forced from their homes, and had everything taken from them, are held in the water, and maybe they’re still fighting back.
Where there’s smoke, there’s typically fire, and I know I won’t be swimming in Lake Lanier anytime soon.