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Column: No rhyme or reason to change Lake Lanier’s name
Johnny Vardeman

If Ruth Waters were still alive, she’d probably be leading a march across Buford Dam protesting the suggestion that Lake Lanier could be renamed.

Mrs. Waters was a respected, dedicated Hall County teacher and historian. Her former students know all too well how she was an ardent admirer of poet Sidney Clopton Lanier, for whom Lake Lanier is named.

In her lectures, she might mention that he served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But she would devote more time talking about his legacy — the music he wrote and performed, his teaching and becoming a school principal, his tutoring, law clerking, writing, his love of the land, especially North Georgia, and the coast.

More than likely, she would have her students read and maybe memorize parts or all of “Song of the Chattahoochee,” the poem that made Lanier famous and the reason Lake Lanier carries his name.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans in May 1954 suggested Lanier’s name be attached to the lake that would back up behind Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River, and it eventually was endorsed by most of the project’s interests.

However, the naming didn’t come without a tad of controversy even back in the early 1950s when it was still being referred to as “Buford Lake.” Several names were considered. Atlanta Mayor W.B. Hartsfield wanted the lake named for Sen. Richard Russell, who pushed for approval of the project in Congress. Hartsfield was a major promoter of the Buford Dam because Atlanta needed more water supply, and some suggested it be named for him.

Other ideas were perhaps tongue in cheek, former Georgia Tech football Coach Bobby Dodd (Dodd Dam) and humorist Will Rogers, whose ancestor supposedly once lived along the Chattahoochee River.

Ironically, one of those opposing the Lanier name was Smith Lanier, a Sidney Lanier descendant from West Point who wanted the name on a lake nearer his home. Apparently a dam on the Chattahoochee proposed at West Point in the 1930s was to have carried the Lanier name. West Point Lake, filled in 1975, is named for the town where it is located.

In his history of Lake Lanier, David Coughlin devotes an entire chapter on the naming of the lake. He details its bureaucratic path through Washington and shepherded in Congress by 9th District Rep. Phil Landrum of Jasper.

The book also explores the life of Sidney Lanier. The poet volunteered for the South and fought in several Civil War battles, but never was promoted from private. Even between battles and in prison, Sidney Lanier studied and wrote poems and other literature. 

As the war wore on, he seemed to have become disillusioned by it. Lanier was captured on a boat running supplies around the Union blockade.

He contracted tuberculosis while in prison in Maryland, and it bedeviled him the rest of his life. He died at age 39 in 1881.

His Civil War service was but a blip on an otherwise productive but short life.

He held a variety of jobs after the war, including teaching, lecturing, composing and performing music and writing. He played in a symphony orchestra and wrote symphonies.

His two most notable poems are “Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” both lyrical expressions of his love for Georgia, nature and the land.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has backed off the prospect of renaming Lake Lanier. Perhaps they heard the voices of Ruth Waters, hundreds of other teachers and their students echoing the rhythmic words of the bard:

“Out of the hills of Habersham, down the valleys of Hall, I hurry amain to reach the plain, run the rapid and leap the fall, split at the rock and together again ...”

Look it up and read the whole thing. You’ll understand why Lake Sidney Lanier is appropriately named.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.