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Johnny Vardeman: Book explores what’s beneath waters of area’s popular lakes
Johnny Vardeman

In The Times’ podcast about the history of Lake Lanier, the question is raised about just what is on the bottom of the lake.

Rumors float up from time to time that whole communities were covered when the Chattahoochee River was dammed at Buford.

David Coughlin, author of a book on the early history and construction of Buford Dam, which backs up Lake Lanier, is featured on the podcast. He says, and his book confirms, most structures were removed or torn down before the waters began to back up. There might be some small bridges that crossed creeks, some farm outbuildings or other small structures (perhaps an outhouse?), but very little significant.

Still, anglers with their sophisticated fish-finding equipment occasionally report readings that indicate some structures.

Vickie Bennett, who studies and explores Lake Lanier, has seen evidence of some structures, especially around Sardis Creek. She said during drought, foundations, piles of rock, a coal pile and remains of what might have been a barn are among things that have been revealed by a low lake level.

The story about Looper’s Speedway in Laurel Park off U.S. 129 north of Gainesville is familiar. Concrete stands are visible when the lake level falls, and at one time the skeleton of an automobile could be seen. Portions of old roads also are revealed.

Lisa M. Russell, a teacher at Georgia Northwestern Technical College and Kennesaw State University, mentions Looper’s in her book, “Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia.” Her book explores the bottoms of familiar area lakes, including Lanier, Burton, Rabun, Allatoona, Chatuge and Hartwell.

The most familiar story is that of the community of Burton, which actually was covered when Georgia Power Co. created Lake Burton in 1919. Burton once was home to about 200 residents, three stores, other businesses, a school, church and post office. The power company bought out property owners, many of whom were reluctant to leave.

It was a similar scenario to other lakes, including Lanier. But at the time, some, scratching out a living on a farm, were glad to see a check in their hands for more money than they had ever seen.

As far as what lies beneath Burton, probably only a few small structures, if anything. Graveyards were relocated, as was the case in Lanier and other lakes. However, there probably lie some graves that didn’t have markers or were otherwise unknown to engineers creating the lakes.

The book covers the lakes in the Georgia Power chain: Burton, Rabun, Tallulah Falls, Seed, Yonah and Tugalo, all of which were built to produce hydroelectric power from 1911 into the 1920s. Lake Yonah is the last in the line of Georgia Power lakes on the Tallulah River. The mile-long Terrora Tunnel connects Rabun and Tallulah lakes.

The Georgia Power lakes long have been popular for boating and fishing. Lots along them are prized, and numerous wealthy celebrities have built magnificent homes on their shores. Burton and Rabun probably are the most popular. Many nearby residents of such counties as Hall, Rabun and Habersham had their cabins or cottages on Rabun or Burton for weekend or summer vacations for years. Many memoires were made on those lakes, especially before Lake Lanier rose.

Much of Lake Rabun’s property once was owned by Augustus Andreae, a German immigrant, who sold much of it to vacation home builders. Lake Rabun Hotel, which he financed, remains in operation today.

Tennessee Valley Authority lakes include Chatuge, Nottely and Blue Ridge.

Underneath Blue Ridge Lake are train tracks used by “dinky” trains to haul materials in construction of the dam. A diver claims to have seen a train engine underwater at one time, but it isn’t seen today, either covered by siltation if it ever existed at all. However, the TVA acknowledged some evidence of campsites, villages and farms remains, and it wants them undisturbed. Remnants of a former fort also are supposed to be under the lake.

A former Cherokee Indian village apparently lies under the dam that backs up Lake Chatuge, named for an Indian settlement, and covering 3,700 acres in Towns County. The author of the book says busloads of schoolboys were brought in to help remove remains from graves that would be inundated by the lake.

“Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia” is scheduled for publication Aug. 6.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times, e-mail,