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Johnny Vardeman: Is bridge image under the lake Lights Ferry?
This image from sonar shows what appears to be old Lights Ferry Bridge under the surface of Lake Lanier.

The drought has more Lake Lanier shoreline exposed, providing another avenue for hiking and exploring.

Vicki Bentley, who lives on the south end of the lake, surely will be one of those scouting the shores for artifacts, perhaps a peek into history. She’s done it before.

She’s discovered old road beds, former cemetery sites, horseshoes, plow pieces, even evidence of plowed fields on former farmland before the lake began backing up behind the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers in the 1950s.

Vicki has examined foundations of homes as the lake receded during droughts. She found some stairs near Sardis Creek, piles of coal at former home sites and sunken boats. She has seen casket-shaped holes where workers removed caskets before the rising waters of Lake Lanier covered grave sites. She and friend Dee Hayes most famously found a prosthetic hand on the expanded shoreline one year.

Some structures were inundated by Lake Lanier, but they were mainly smaller ones or in the very deepest parts of the lake. Some smaller bridges that crossed creeks were left intact.

One familiar site to Lake Lanier visitors during droughts is the concrete grandstands for the old Looper Speedway on one end of Laurel Park off Cleveland Highway.

But Vicki has a notion that the old Light’s Ferry Bridge is still partially intact under the water near Flowery Branch. A friend of a friend furnished her the image of a bridge she believes was taken by a side-scan sonar. She has been unable to confirm that it is indeed that bridge and hopes old-timers who remember it might identify it.

Light’s Ferry Road runs from Flowery Branch across McEver Road to Aqualand Marina. The old road bed is under the lake between Aqualand and Bethel Park on the western side. But there are islands in between, and Vicki has found signs of the road on them, including a concrete right-of-way marker.

Fishing friends, knowing her interest in the under-the-lake world, have brought her other images of bridges, including what they figure is Light’s Ferry bridge, said to be 114 feet under the water. But they are not as good quality as the one with this article.

A ferry across the Chattahoochee at that point was operated in the 1800s by Obediah Light, who owned a plantation on Flowery Branch Creek, if that isn’t a redundant name. The ferry was a link between Hall and Forsyth counties.

A bridge later was built at the site and called Light’s Ferry Bridge. In April 1916, Hall and Forsyth county commissioners awarded a contract to Austin Brothers of Dallas, Texas, to erect a new bridge to replace the old one. It would cost $3,500, including the cost of removing the old structure. The steel span would run 128 feet.

Whether that bridge is the one that Vicki believes remains under the lake is undetermined because floods over the years washed away numerous bridges across the Chattahoochee.

Even though a bridge was built at the Light’s Ferry site, residents in the area still wanted the ferry to operate for some reason. Hall County commissioners donated $25 to Flowery Branch residents who wanted the ferry maintained.

In those days, there were controversies concerning bridges and ferries. Some taxpayers believed the private operation of ferries was sufficient and opposed building taxpayer-funded bridges. Some went to court to keep the county from building bridges across the river in the northeast part of the county. They contended bridges would benefit only a few private citizens in the sparsely populated part of the county, and tax money shouldn’t support them. The bridges, however, eventually would be built.

As for Light’s Ferry Bridge, Vicki said she has been told at one point the waters of Lake Lanier began to rise so fast that the bridge couldn’t be dismantled in time. In fact, the image she produced seems to show part of the structure removed.

David Coughlin, author of a history of Lake Lanier, wrote that in March 1956, just a month after Buford Dam closed its gates, the lake had risen 48.5 feet, flooding several creeks already. Four major bridge sites — Light’s Ferry, old Brown’s Bridge, Keith’s Bridge and Kelly’s Bridge — were covered.

Because of the fast-rising waters, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to halt the impoundment temporarily to continue work on Thompson Bridge in Gainesville, as well as dismantling or removing other structures.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.