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Building Buford Dam

Residents recall dam's construction, filling of lake

POSTED: January 4, 2008 5:03 a.m.
On March 1, 1950, a ceremonial groundbreaking drew thousands to the site of what is now Buford Dam.

Talk of a dam and reservoir had begun in earnest following the end of World War II.

The River and Harbor Act, which was approved by Congress on July 25, 1946 authorized "a multiple purpose dam on the Chattahoochee River at Buford in the interest of navigation, flood control, and power and water supply.

It would be the second dam on the Appalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint River system. The first was the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam on the Appalachicola near Chattahoochee, Fla. for which ground was broken on Oct. 1, 1947. Woodruff Dam is the controlling dam for Lake Seminole on the Georgia-Florida state line.

In his book, "Lake Sidney Lanier, A Storybook Site," author David Coughlin chronicles the early thoughts of government officials as they surveyed the location.

"In 1946 as Army Engineers surveyed a narrow river valley at the boundary of Gwinnett and Forsyth Counties. Mason J. Young, then South Atlantic Division Chief, looked out over the open expanse from one hillside to the next. This site was special and one that had been visited many times before over the years. 'This is a storybook site for a dam. I've seen similar sites in the Northeast but there is always a city a few miles away. Here we have the site with no such complications. I don't think I've ever seen a better site for a dam.'" Coughlin wrote.

The groundbreaking in 1950 was an event which drew a crowd estimated at 3,500. Those turning the ceremonial first spades of dirt included then-Gov. Herman E. Talmadge; Weldon Garner of Buford, who was a leader in the local planning committee for the dam; E.L. Hart, manager of the Atlanta Freight Bureau; Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield; J. Larry Kleckley, president of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce; Mayor Roy Otwell of Cumming; Col. B.L. Robinson, Col. Walter K. Wilson and Lt. Col. J.R. Jewett of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

George Ingram of Cumming watched the turning of those ceremonial spades of dirt. From the time the lake reached a navigable stage, Ingram has been an avid boater. He was a high school student of 14 when he boarded a school bus to attend the ground breaking.

"It was a historic day," Ingram recalled the huge ceremony. Six years later he was on hand when the flood gates were closed and the lake began filling.

"Little did I know just what was to come," Ingram said. "I have been blessed in having enjoyed Lake Lanier as a boater ever since."

While the dam was authorized in 1946, funding for construction and land acquisition for the massive public works project did not come until the 1950 federal budget.

The initial contractor for the first phase of construction was a Minneapolis firm who was awarded the contract on June 7, 1951 for $2.8 million, which also included construction of two saddle dikes and an access road. They sub-contracted the work out to Gates and Fox Inc. of Grants Pass, Ore. They drilled three penstocks and a sluice tunnel 246 feet in length to allow for power production and emergency releases of water downstream.

A story in the April 14, 1954 edition of The Times gave an account of the first land purchase of land for the lake.

Henry Shadburn, then 81, was paid $4,100 for his home and 100 acres in Forsyth County, roughly $1 an acre. The Corps of Engineers had previously acquired land for construction purposes, however, Shadburn's property was the first to be purchased for the basin.

Shadburn's 100 acres was just a small part of the nearly 40,000 acres the lake occupies.

Tricia Elliott Terrell remembers the day when she came home from school and her parents told her they would have to move because of the new lake.

"We thought that was the end the world," said Terrell, who had all of her family living nearby. They, too, would have to move to make way for the lake.

"I didn't realize how big it would be. We couldn't visualize the river coming out of its banks to make the lake," Terrell said.

"We now live about a mile from where the house was," she said. The family attended Chestatee Baptist Church, which ended up on an island until the new Chestatee Road was built.

"I can remember them taking us in by boat to go to church," she said.

Over the years, Terrell has seen the lake levels drop so low that the foundation of the old family home was visible.

"That was like raising up the dead," she said.

Some landowners resisted and became subjects of a civil action in U.S. District Court. The land disputes were resolved by the time flood gates were closed in 1956.

From the planning stages in 1948 to its completion, the project totaled $44 million. The largest appropriation was in 1956, when $11.8 million was allocated toward Lanier.



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