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Greetings from the other Lake Lanier
S.C. reservoir not as big as its Georgia cousin, but a happy home for lake dwellers
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Allen Smith is president of the Lake Lanier Civic Association and has spent years living on the South Carolina lake and spending summers at the Boy Scout camp. - photo by Tom Reed

TRYON, N.C. — Hogback Mountain rises in the distance. Sounds from nature fill the air, occasionally broken by the sound of a car passing by on the curvy Lakeshore Drive.

Welcome to the other Lake Lanier, a tranquil community in upstate South Carolina, bounded by the historic village of Tryon, N.C.

"It's like stepping back a little bit in time, watching the kids skiing and swimming and just having good, old-fashioned fun," said Patty Otto, treasurer of the Lake Lanier Civic Association for homeowners around the lake.

The private man-made lake dates to 1925, preceding by some 30 years the North Georgia reservoir by the same name.

It was part of a project started by the Tryon Development Company. A set of aging plaques embedded in original stone pillars at the community entrance gives that brief history.

Initial business was brisk, with some $1.6 million in land sales taking place in the summer of 1925.

"People were flocking here from Atlanta and Charlotte to buy lots," said Otto, owner of the Lake Lanier Tea House restaurant, which doubled as a sales office in those early days.

In its heyday, the Tea House was a popular stop for famous folk traveling through the scenic area.

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton dined there, along with such celebrities as actor David Niven and author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"There used to be cabins around, as well," Otto said. "On the end where the (restaurant's) bar is now, there was a bathhouse in the 1930s. People would pay 50 cents and swim here all day."

During World War II, soldiers would visit before being shipped overseas.

"And then, when they came back, the boys would get off at the Tryon or Landrum (S.C.) depot, and their first trip would be up here at the Tea House," Otto said. "I'm told they would come up and throw their uniforms and medals, everything, right in the water."

Lake Lanier also was the longtime home of a Boy Scout camp. Several structures remain from those days, including the rustic dining hall and a tall diving tower extending over the water.

Allen Smith, president of the civic association, grew up going to the lake, including attending the Scout camp.

"Every time I went swimming over here as a kid, my mother would tell me to be careful where I jumped in," he said. "She would say, ‘They just cut the trees (when building the lake). They didn't drag them out.'"

Over the years, all the lots on the 6-mile shoreline were bought, with most residents building homes at - or over - water's edge.

Today, some 300 families call Lake Lanier home, with nearly half of them belonging to the civic association.

"The town of Tryon controls what's built over the waterbed, and they own the lake bottom," Smith said. "I don't think they own the water, but they have a right to it once it crosses the dam."

Tryon uses Lake Lanier as its main water source.

Lakeview Drive encircles the community, following the contours of the lake and crossing the dam, which breached in 1926. Photographs of the disaster hang in the Tea House, along with pictures from other eras.

Georgia's Lake Lanier, which hugs shoreline in Hall and several surrounding counties, traces its roots to the River and Harbor Act, which was approved by Congress in 1946.

The law authorized "a multiple purpose dam on the Chattahoochee River at Buford in the interest of navigation, flood control and power and water supply."

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on March 1, 1950, on the Buford Dam.

Work on the main earthen dam, as well as three saddle dikes, powerhouse and road improvements, took five years to complete. Gates at the intake structure were closed so that the lake could start to fill.

Two years later, the lake reached full pool. A dedication ceremony was held on Oct. 9, 1957.

Unlike its South Carolina counterpart, much of its history would be marked by controversy. Georgia, Alabama and Florida have been embroiled in lawsuits over the use of water in Lanier, with a federal judge ruling last year that it couldn't be used as a municipal drinking source.

Both lakes draw their name from Sidney Lanier, who was born in Macon and died in Lynn, N.C., just outside Tryon.

The house where Lanier died of tuberculosis still stands, a private residence with historic markers facing Lynn Road. A plaque in a stone monument declares Lanier as "the beloved poet of the South."

Beyond their rich histories, the two lakes differ widely in physical comparison.
Lanier in North Georgia covers about 38,000 acres and stands at nearly 1,070 feet above sea level (1,071 feet is full pool).

South Carolina's Lanier contains about 140 acres of water and is about 50 feet deep at its deepest. The deck across the road from the Tea House overlooks a depth of about 20 feet, Otto said.

The two-year drought that throttled much of the Southeast drained Lanier in Georgia to about 1,050 feet above sea level. Lanier in South Carolina dropped by 6 to 8 inches.

Georgia's Lake Lanier, which is operated by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers, draws hundreds of thousands of visitors per year. During a weekday boat tour of South Carolina's Lanier, no other craft hit the waters, despite bright blue skies and warm temperatures.

Forget the crowds, though. Those who live on the lake swear by its laid-back, neighborly lifestyle and friendly atmosphere.

Ellen Delehanty, 88, grew up on the lake, then went on to live for a while in California.
On a trip back home in the mid-1970s, she said she was ready to come back.

As she and her husband "were riding our bicycles around the lake, I stuck my head through a broken window of this place and thought it was pretty nice," Delehanty said, looking back at her home.

The couple returned to California, then packed their bags for South Carolina.

"I call this God's country," said Delehanty, who grew up on the lake and has lived the past 33 years there.

"My children said, ‘Well, mother, God made it all.' I said, ‘Yeah, but he made a special something around here.'"

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