The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local leaders broke ground for Buford Dam in 1949, and it would be another seven years before the first trickle of water from the Chattahoochee River would begin to form Lake Lanier.
The corps had scheduled Feb. 1, 1956, as the day the dam gates would close officially to back up the river waters to make the lake.
While the dam would have been complete by that date, there remained much to be done even in the early days of that year.
The previous year, 1955, had been extremely dry, only 41.2 inches of rain compared to the normal 54.29, one of the driest years in history.
Just a few days before Feb. 1, corps officials were saying it was doubtful the gates at Buford Dam could close because the Chattahoochee River was so low. A certain level had to be maintained in the river below the dam, and it was one-third to one-quarter below normal.
Needed heavy rains fortunately came — just enough to allow the gate-closing ceremony to proceed on schedule. Twelve officials from local governments, Atlanta and the corps of engineers manned 12 switches that were pulled to lower the gates. The weather was inclement, with snow, sleet and cold rain whipped by gusts of wind chilling the 400 people attending.
Carl Lawson of Gainesville, chairman of the Upper Chattahoochee Development Association, Mayor Roy Otwell of Cumming and Weldon Gardner of Buford, former UCDA president, represented Northeast Georgia, each getting to pull a switch. Others getting the honors were mostly corps and Atlanta area officials.
Rains helped the lake rise a half foot in 24 hours to a level of 930.85 feet above sea level. It would need to be at the 1,035-foot level within a year for a minimum pool to allow enough water through the dam to generate power. Today’s normal level is 1,071 feet above sea level.
That Feb. 1, 1956, was a significant milestone in the history of Buford Dam and Lake Lanier. Even as the dignitaries were pulling the switches, however, there continued to be worries, red-tape negotiations and projects on the table.
As a new Clark’s Bridge is a-building today in a bend of the lake north of Gainesville, the long-standing bridge wasn’t even in the original plans to be replaced. But local residents and officials lobbied their congressmen and got it included in the budget.
Even as the dam gates were closed, however, Clark’s Bridge wasn’t a slam dunk. The corps of engineers said they would provide $285,000 to build a bridge over the lake at that point. But that would have provided only enough for a one-lane bridge. Traffic counts on Clark’s Bridge Road didn’t justify a new bridge, the corps maintained. State and local funds would have to supplement that amount to make it a two-lane. Otherwise, the corps said, it would not build a one-lane bridge.
The state and county had to put up $40,000-90,000 to go with the federal funds. Ninth District U.S. Rep. Phil Landrum got in on the act, and a two-lane bridge went up.
While the dam was under construction and as the lake was filling, raw sewage was being pumped into the new Lake Lanier. Gainesville was building a sewage treatment plant on 35 acres off Thompson Bridge Road, but it would be late in the year before it was completed. The feds furnished $1 million to build the plant. Another such facility would come later on the Flat Creek section of the lake in south Hall County.
Meanwhile, Gwinnett County, still a rural county, was worried about having enough water for its farmers. It would spend $6 million for a water treatment plant, a far cry from the many-more-millions facilities it has today.
Flowery Branch, anticipating growth, asked Gainesville to extend its water lines to the city, and it did, also including Plainview, Oakwood, Blackshear Place and Chestnut Mountain.
Gainesville annexed for the first time across Thompson Bridge to include the 1,200 acres belonging to the Houses, Pinsons, Lindermans, Ropers and Higgins. About 800 acres of that would become Chattahoochee Golf Course. The city received $70,000 from the federal government for the old golf course inundated by the lake at the end of Wood’s Mill Road.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.