You would find few people today who wouldn’t say Lake Lanier has been a blessing to Northeast Georgia, a bonus for people living here, a big draw for tourism, recreation and economic development.
Skeptics and downright opponents to building Buford Dam, however, were not uncommon in the 1950s before construction began. They included those who didn’t want the federal government to take land that had been in their families for generations and Hall County business people who feared the flooding of roads and abandoning of bridges would cut into their traffic, especially from the west.
While the lake has been a boon to business, those who worried about transportation were at least partially correct. Some bridges over the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers weren’t rebuilt, and roads that once meandered their way from Hall County into Forsyth and Dawson counties are underwater today.
Of course, bridges were built to get you to and from those western locations, but the lake limited the ways you could get there and concentrated traffic on the main highways, Ga. 53 and Brown’s Bridge Road, Ga. 369.
It bedevils transportation planners today. Limited options remain where new roads can go because the lake is in the way. In addition, the many new subdivisions and accompanying commercial development that have sprouted on and around the lake make routing traffic even more complicated and right-of-way costs if new roads were built almost prohibitively expensive.
Six decades after Buford Dam formed Lake Lanier, you can still find traces of roads that once served as main routes around Hall County. For instance, Longstreet Bridge over the Chattahoochee River was relocated, and U.S. 129 north rerouted. You can see traces of the old road from Gainesville to Cleveland in woods between the U.S. Forest Service and Atlanta Botanical Gardens’ Smithgall Woodland Legacy. It crosses the road and heads down the hill toward the lake.
The old Cleveland Road also is visible headed toward Laurel Park where boat ramps now provide a launch site for boaters and near Bell’s Mill Bridge.
Thompson Bridge’s present location is near the old bridge site, and the old road branches off the new Thompson Bridge Road and leads toward Holly Park. Nix Bridge Road runs into the lake where there once was a Nix Bridge over the Chestatee River. A relocated Bolding Bridge and Wilkie Bridge provided crossings from Hall into Dawson and Forsyth counties.
Keith’s Bridge Road also was relocated, and a temporary bridge replacing one that had burned years earlier wasn’t replaced when the lake backed up.
Nor was Light’s Bridge at Light’s Ferry Road, where Obediah Light once operated a ferry, leading out of Flowery Branch. Part of what is today’s Jim Crow Road was flooded, along with Gaines Ferry Road, which today leads toward Van Pugh Park. Numerous other back roads in southwestern Hall County went underwater, including part of New Bethany Road. Ga. 347 in that area leads to Lake Lanier Islands.
Other roads affected by the lake included parts of Brown’s Bridge and Mountain View roads. Some sections of Ga. 53, Dawsonville Highway out of Gainesville, remain visible, as parts of Sardis Road, among others that had to be rerouted. Most of Ga. 53 west of Gainesville had to be rerouted.
Other concerns of those early skeptics of Buford Dam included taking the 25,000 Hall County acres off the tax books and the relocation of 700 families affected by the new Lake Lanier. The tax issue long ago was resolved as new business and residential development provided far more tax revenue than did the mostly farmland that was covered by the lake.
The federal government did compensate those whose property was taken, but many didn’t want to move. Some had to go to court to get the money they wanted. The money they got for their land helped them find other places to live or farm, but there continued resentment from many who had to be uprooted.
Few structures remain under the lake today. Those in the area where the lake would fill were either torn down or sold and moved. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers toward the last advertised for sale 130 buildings of assorted description and size they had acquired.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.