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Canal dream didn’t make it across state

POSTED: March 13, 2011 12:30 a.m.

It takes big dreamers sometime to get things done, but sometimes dreams evaporate with the times.

Atlanta and local leaders dreamed big more than six decades ago when they thought about damming up the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers to make Lake Lanier. They turned their vision into serious action after World War II, convinced Congress there was a need for such a lake, and despite some opposition, by the mid-1950s, water began piling up behind Buford Dam.

Even before the lake began to form, however, some leaders still were in dream mode. Ivan Allen, who became mayor of Atlanta and had been one of the supporters of Buford Dam, looked well beyond a lake that would ensure his city a water supply, provide flood control, increase tourism and recreation and generate electric power. He and others could see Lake Lanier as an important part of a waterway that would connect the central part of the country with the port at Savannah.

There was considerable serious discussion about such an idea in the mid-1950s, and occasionally it would pop up later. The proposal was to dig a canal to connect Lake Lanier with Guntersville Lake in Alabama. It would become part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway that runs through Mississippi and Alabama.

Of course, other canals would have to be dug between Lake Lanier and Savannah, probably connecting and expanding other streams along the way.

It was a far-fetched idea, but consider that the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers were connected in 1984. That system does link with the Mississippi River system to enhance barge traffic to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Georgia idea would have brought a waterway through Rome, Cartersville, Atlanta, Buford, Gainesville, Augusta and then to Savannah. Allen said this could move goods back and forth from the country's bread basket through Georgia to the Atlantic coast without having to go the long way around Florida's peninsula.

Allen estimated 20 million tons of cargo floating through the waterway annually. Already some surveys had been completed, showing 40 locks would be needed to connect the Tennessee River to Savannah.

Of course, supporters of such a waterway were looking for industrial growth through the region, but also touted side benefits of recreation and water supply.

Perhaps in some quarters the waterway remains a dream in somebody's file cabinet somewhere. It was a bold idea for the time, but it would be even bolder today because of the economy, government budget crises and disagreement among Georgia, Florida and Alabama over use of Lake Lanier as a primary water supply for North Georgia cities. Besides, it's hard enough to find agreement on a route for a new road, much less digging a ditch deep and wide enough to fill with enough water to float barges from the middle of the country all the way to Savannah.

The Lake Lanier issue is being argued in the courts, and even if the waterway idea ever got off the ground, it would seem impossible to get all the parties involved to agree on the route, expense and other issues.

Allen probably didn't expect his dream to become reality in his lifetime, but he would be even more disappointed that the water from Lake Lanier that helped fuel his city's growth would become such a controversial issue among neighboring states.

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In the early 1900s, there appeared to be an exodus of leaders north from Athens to Gainesville. Rather than bemoan their leaving, however, an Athens newspaper boasted that its city was furnishing expertise to its neighbor to the north.
Gainesville's mayor at the time, R.D. Mitchell, had grown up in Athens, Councilman H.N. Merck was a former Athens resident, and City Clerk J.H. White was an Athens native. In addition, W.H. Norris, another Gainesville council member, spent most of his business time in Athens, and Ed White, son of the clerk, served on the Gainesville council several months even after moving to Athens.

Athens' city engineer, Captain Barnett, moved to Gainesville to become that city's engineer.

The Athens newspaper conceded though that the exodus worked both ways, noting that three ministers serving the city's churches at the time had come from Gainesville.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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