Large farms, orchards and chicken houses that once dotted the landscape in North Georgia are now covered by Lake Lanier’s deep waters.
But they can be found in notations on old maps recently discovered in a U.S. Geological Survey warehouse in Washington, D.C., and now in the hands of Army Corps of Engineers’ Lake Lanier Project Management Office at Buford Dam.
The hand-drawn maps are not the originals used in building the lake, according to the Army Corps of Engineers, but they still give an early representation of what the region looked like before Lake Lanier was formed.
Drawn in pen and pencil, they have barely aged, showing no signs of yellowing. Markings clearly show the locations of old structures, including churches, cemeteries and schools, and the railroad lines, roads and the highways that passed by them.
Also scribbled on the map are elevations, which would play a key role, as the government would eventually flood valleys — after removing or relocating structures — to a full pool of 1,070 feet above sea level.
Determining what buildings or landmarks would have been in the flood’s path means looking for sets of broken lines, with the inner line denoting full pool and the outer line meaning 1,085 feet, or maximum storage capacity. And remember, the lines may have been moved as a final, official version was created later.
Still, there are landmarks that are now clearly submerged.
One of the most notable ones is the Gainesville Speedway, which sat near present-day Laurel Park in North Hall. The top of its concrete bleachers became visible a few years ago, when the area was undergoing a historic drought.
And then there’s sunken roadbeds, including U.S. 129, which brought traffic to the speedway. When the lake was built, U.S. 129, also known as Cleveland Highway, was rerouted west to the path it follows today.
Cemeteries were moved to higher ground, so exhumed gravesites — now visible in mapping, thanks to advances in technology — are underneath the water. The valleys that once served as farmland and homesteads are at the bottom of Lanier, while the hilltops now form the clusters of some 160 islands across the 39,000-acre reservoir.
The maps also show the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers as they flowed and converge, as well as the many rural bridges crossing them.
If not for keen eyes at the U.S. Geological Survey, they would have gone to the trash heap.
During a cleanup of the warehouse, employees of the federal scientific agency based in Reston, Va., noticed three large tubes containing the maps and bearing the corps’ name.
The corps office in Washington referred the agency to its Mobile (Ala.) District, which governs Lake Lanier. Mobile told USGS not to throw out the maps but call Buford Dam for further direction.
Ranger Russ Lundstrum, the Buford office’s map specialist, was contacted and given more details, including that the maps date to 1953 and were “drawn on some sort of weird paper.”
He said he instantly told the caller, “Yes, I want them.”
USGS shipped them to the Buford Dam: 44 maps in all, each one nearly a yard wide, 42 inches long and bound with aluminum backing. Put together like a puzzle, they present a nearly three-story by three-story picture of the region’s history before Lanier.
“They’re really cool,” he said. “I was excited to see these.”
But they have quite an air of mystery.
“I would have thought these would have been here on site,” Lundstrum said, still reeling from the discovery late in 2013.
“I don’t know if they were (used) for planning up there (at USGS), or (the corps) was finished with them here after the dam was built and they sent them off to storage.”
The map’s exact purpose is “the million-dollar question,” Lundstrum said.
“But it was definitely important ... for the long term, just because of the media they are drawn on.”
Park Aerial Surveys, the company that drew the maps, still exists. These days, it’s part of the history of Sewall, a geospatial and engineering firm based in Old Town, Maine,
When contacted by email, Sewall President and CEO David Edson confirmed his company was involved in the project, but he didn’t have any other immediate details about Park Aerial’s work.
The lake dates to July 1946, when Congress, through the River and Harbor Act, authorized “a multiple purpose dam on the Chattahoochee River at Buford in the interest of navigation, flood control, and power and water supply.”
On March 1, 1950, a ceremonial groundbreaking drew thousands to the site of what is now Buford Dam.
The initial contractor for the first phase of construction was a Minneapolis firm that was awarded the contract on June 7, 1951, for $2.8 million, which also included construction of two saddle dikes and an access road.
Nearly 700 families were displaced by the project, which was dedicated in 1957. Some landowners who refused to sell their property became subjects of a civil action in U.S. District Court.
The lake reached full pool on May 25, 1959. Full pool was raised by 1 foot in the 1970s.
The maps serve as a time capsule in another way: They show streets and landmarks in cities around Lanier, including Gainesville, Flowery Branch and Oakwood.
And there are reminders of the past, including the Buford School for the Colored, which operated in an era of segregation.
When Lake Lanier was completed in the late 1950s, along with the many bridges crossing it, Lanier would go on to draw millions annually for recreation and serve as a main drinking source for much of metro Atlanta.
Also, over the years, the corps’ mapping system would evolve, with digital technology now the rage.
In 2010, using federal stimulus money, the corps began producing maps that offer views of the lake’s often-murky depths.
A firm contracted by the corps traveled the lake by boat using high-speed sonar, which provided elevation numbers throughout the reservoir, including in and around the many recreation areas filling the shoreline.
But being a maps guy, Lundstrum is amazed at the amount of work that must have gone into producing the 1950s versions.
“These were drawn with pencil originally, then inked over,” he said. “Every single line is hand-drawn, which just blows my mind.”
As a lifelong resident of the area, Chris Lovelady, Lake Lanier’s assistant project manager, also finds the maps interesting.
“There’s stuff on here that’s kind of historic,” he said, tracing his finger across the paper as he tried to find familiar landmarks, such as McEver Road and railroad lines.
While some things about the maps are hard to figure, one thing’s for certain for Lundstrum: He isn’t content with returning them to storage.
“I want to scan them and make it available to everybody,” he said. “I think they need to be locked up and preserved, but I think people would like to see them.”