By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Column: Remembering the names that didn’t make the cut for Lake Lanier
Johnny Vardeman

Lake Lanier Islands, the state park on the southern end of the lake, could almost be considered an accident.

Engineers figuring out the lay of the land that would be covered by the lake made a mathematical error, according to David Coughlin, Lake Lanier historian. They didn’t figure on a large group of islands in that location.

Islands of various sizes poke their heads up from the depths of the body of water. But, those planning the impoundment didn’t think that group of islands would emerge from the waters. 

Lake Lanier started filling Feb. 1, 1956. By May 25, 1959, it reached its normal level at the time, which was 1070 feet above sea level. Normal level today is considered 1071.

In 1955, State Sen. Howard Overby of Gainesville introduced a resolution in the legislature calling for a state park on the undeveloped islands. Lake Lanier Islands Development Authority was created by the legislature in 1963, and serious work began on the park in 1971. 

The four islands cover 1,071 acres with 19 miles of shoreline.The largest island is 891 acres.

The state operated the park at first, but later leased it to private corporations, including KSL and the Virgil Williams family. Management lately has been turned over to Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville company. “Margaritaville” already is the name of a section of the Islands.

The late Sylvan Meyer, editor of The Times from its inception through the 1960s, was a prime promoter of the Islands, one of which was named in his honor. Other area leaders who played important roles included Carl Lawson, Larry Kleckley and Lester Hosch. Weldon Garner of Buford, L.D. Ewing of Norcross and Roy P. Otwell, longtime businessman and mayor of Cumming, also led efforts to create the lake. Otwell thought Cumming’s name should be on the dam because of the city’s proximity to it, and often referred to it as Buford-Cumming Dam.

Lake Lanier Islands officially opened May 31, 1973.


Various names were proposed for the lake before poet Sidney Lanier’s name was officially approved. Among other suggestions was Hartsfield Lake for Mayor W.B. Hartsfield of Atlanta, who pushed hard for the lake. Instead, he got his name on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

U.S. Sen. Richard Russell’s name was proposed because of his role in Congress. There are two Russell lakes in Georgia, one in Habersham County and one on the South Carolina line.

The bridge leading to Lake Lanier Islands also is named for him because he got Congress to approve the money to build it.

Some suggested the name of Will Rogers for the lake because the famous American humorist was a descendant of the Cherokee, who lived along the Chattahoochee River, the main stream providing water for the lake.

Others suggested naming it after Bobby Dodd, legendary Georgia Tech football coach, but “Dodd Dam” didn’t go over well with some. 

There was some opposition to naming the lake after Sidney Lanier. A Lanier descendant noted that a proposed dam near West Point, Georgia, would bear the Lanier name. That didn’t happen until later, and it was called West Point.

Bridge to somewhere

Nothing could be done about a park on the islands until a bridge connected them to the mainland. It was a considerable chore getting the money to build one. 

Meyer recalled contacting Russell about getting Congress to find the money. Russell asked, “What if I build this bridge and nothing ever happens at the other end?” 

Meyer told him state parks would occupy the islands. Two months later, he called and said two sentences: “How are you?” and “Your bridge is OK.” Then he hung up.

Large lake

Lake Lanier is Georgia’s largest lake. Hartwell Lake on the Georgia-South Carolina border is larger, but most of it is in South Carolina. Lake Lanier is 160 feet deep, but Carter’s Lake in the North Georgia mountains is deeper at 450 feet.

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

Regional events