A Georgia lake's dark and deadly history has some people seeing ghosts
Updated 4:03 AM ET, Sat October 31, 2020
(CNN)Legend has it the ghost of a long-dead woman roams this lake in a flowing blue dress. Mysterious arms reach out for swimmers from the watery depths. Angry spirits call people home to submerged graves.
These and other spooky tales have haunted Lake Lanier, in the foothills of the northern Georgia mountains, for decades.
To many Georgians the large, serpentine lake northeast of Atlanta is a recreational hotspot, popular for boating and water sports. But supernatural lore and urban legends about the lake have found a receptive audience on social media, where they've found legions of believers.
The lake was created in the 1950s by flooding valley communities that contained a cemetery, fueling beliefs that it's cursed. Historians say some unmarked graves and other structures were swallowed up by its waters.
More than 200 people have died in swimming and boating accidents on the lake since 1994, adding to its dark history. And the Netflix drama "Ozark," which has its own high body count, films scenes at the lake.
The stories about mysterious underwater sightings are eerie -- especially at Halloween. But the true backstory of Lake Lanier, built over an underwater ghost town, is just as interesting.
The lake was mired in controversy from the start
The controversy surrounding the lake, as described by author and historian Lisa Russell, started long before its construction.
Before the land was buried in water, it was lush and fertile, with rabbits and squirrels scampering around. Communities thrived, with fancy names like Castleberry Bottom, Russell said.
Then came the US Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted to create a lake to provide Atlanta and surrounding counties with power and water.
The government offered locals money for their farmland. Most of it had been in families for generations, making it almost impossible to put a price tag on it, said Russell, a writing instructor at Georgia Northwestern Technical College and author of several books on the lost towns of North Georgia.
"At first, the government assured land owners that they were being paid for the true value of the land and buildings, but residents found it hard to price generations of memories, hard work and deep roots," Russell wrote in her book, "Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia." "A host of emotions accompanied the talk of relocation: anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, bewilderment and apprehension. To them, their land was priceless."
Eventually, some 700 families sold a total of 56,000 acres to the government, which built a dam on the Chattahoochee River to form the lake.
As their land filled with water in 1956, locals jammed roads and bridges to watch as history vanished before their eyes. Whatever they had abandoned was covered by the the rising waters.
Even the lake's naming was contentious, Russell said. Some local officials wanted to name it after Georgia politicians. Others sought to name it after a legendary football coach. Eventually they decided to name it after Sidney Lanier, an 18th-century Georgia poet who wrote "Song of the Chattahoochee."
Some families later regretted their decision once they realized they couldn't survive on what the government offered, Russell told CNN.
But the lake brought multiple benefits, including flood protection from the Chattahoochee, which flows west of Atlanta. Today Lake Lanier has about 625 billion gallons of water -- the equivalent of 950,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
And they yield mysterious stories.
What lies beneath
To prepare the land to be filled with water, the Army Corps of Engineers demolished or moved anything they considered dangerous. They uprooted trees and hauled them away. Barns and wooden structures that could float and endanger watercraft were moved. Major infrastructure such as bridges and water intakes were relocated.
But ... the community had a cemetery. While the Corps identified and moved marked graves, it's likely that some unmarked ones were inadvertently left behind, said Cesar Yabor, a spokesman for the US Army Corps of Engineers.
"The technological capability to identify and verify unmarked burial sites through subsurface scanning or other means was far less robust 70 years ago," Yabor told CNN.
"While the Corps made every effort at the time to locate unmarked burials," he added, "the limited capabilities of the time make it probable that unanticipated finds of human remains are possible, whether from the antebellum and Civil War periods or of Native American origin from pre-colonial and ancient times."
An old auto-racing track near Gainesville was also left behind. It remains at the lake bottom, although the Corps removed its bleachers so they wouldn't float to the surface and cause a hazard for boats, Yabor said.
The concrete block foundations of some small buildings also were submerged, Yabor said.
Some people have claimed to hear church bells from a sunken church. But Yabor told CNN that's not possible.
"No such structure was known to be left behind due to the height issue -- if it had a steeple -- as well as the floating wood issue," he said.
Over the decades, when the lake's water levels dropped during drought, submerged roads, tire parts and other artifacts have been exposed, said Russell, the historian.
Russell believes unmarked graves also were left behind because they were not easily identified and there was no family to claim them.