The History of Lake Lanier

Construction of Lake Lanier, GA

Congress authorized Buford Dam for construction in 1946 as part of the overall development of the nation's waterways after the Second World War. The river and harbor legislation that came out of Congress during this time period was targeted at developing the nation's rivers systems for national defense, flood control, power production, navigation and water supplies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was involved in hundreds of projects all over the United States, as the scope of this massive undertaking was unprecedented.

Funding for construction first appeared on the horizon for the project in late 1949 as part of a multi-million dollar public works appropriation for the State of Georgia which saw $750,000.00 go to Buford Dam. This money was used to complete the initial planning and design phases of the project such as the powerhouse design and for the start of construction. The ground breaking was held on the Gwinnett County side of the future dam site on March 1, 1950.

Hundreds of people from all over North Georgia braved the cold damp weather conditions to make the trek along the water soaked muddy roads to get to the groundbreaking ceremony. The work on the three saddle dikes, main earth dam, powerhouse, as well as bridge & highway relocation and construction would take over seven years. Although the work would be completed by private companies they would have to follow government specifications agreed to at the time the contracts were awarded.

During this time period the government would also have to acquire the rights to over 56,000 acres of land and see to the relocation of over 700 families. This was necessary in order to prepare the land for a 38,000-acre reservoir with over 692 miles of shoreline. The government followed strict guidelines spelled out in the "River and Harbor Act" legislation in acquiring private property for public use. Careful attention was paid in removing homes, barns, wells, fencing, and other physical property to prevent navigation hazards on the lake in the future. This one aspect of the project's construction had a price tag of over 19 million dollars. Most property was purchased for between $25 and $75 per acre. When complete, the total cost of the project's construction, including the acquisition of land related items, was nearly 45 million dollars.

On February 1, 1956 the gates of the intake structure were closed on the lakeside of the dam starting the slow process of creating the reservoir that was eventually named Lake Sidney Lanier after the Georgia born poet and musician who died in the 1880's. It took over three years for the lake to record its normal elevation of 1070 feet above sea level for the first time on May 25, 1959. The dedication was held on top of the intake structure parking lot on October 9, 1957.

Sidney Clopton Lanier was a poet and musician who was born and raised in Macon, Georgia in the decades preceding the Civil War. He was one of three children born to Robert Sampson and Mary Jane Lanier on Thursday, February 3, 1842. He had a younger brother Clifford and a sister Gertrude. Sidney was raised, as most boys were in the South at that time with a strong sense of honor and duty to his heritage in antebellum Georgia. He was a self-taught musician who learned to play a wide range of musical instruments including the guitar, flute, organ, and piano. It was his passion for music and literature that would later define his life.

At 14 years of age he entered Oglethorpe College near Midway, Georgia graduating at the top of his class in 1860. His love for the classics sparked a keen interest in traveling abroad after graduation but fate stepped in and his life took a different spin. His southern upbringing forged his desire to serve the South and all he felt it stood for. In later years he would comment in despair on having been foolish enough to have been so wrapped up in the Southern mystique that he felt it his duty to march off to war to defend his simple way of life.

He served valiantly in several campaigns including Seven Pines, Drewry's Bluffs, The Seven Days Battles, Malvern Hill, Chancellorsville, and even in defense of Petersburg. While serving on the blockade-runner "Lucy" he was captured and imprisoned at Point Lookout, Maryland. It was while he was a prisoner of war that he contracted Tuberculosis, which would claim his life at such a young age. After the war he married, had children, traveled all over the country trying to find a climate suitable to his condition, all the while producing literature and music, in between periods of extreme illness, that endures even today.

He spent a good deal of his time near the end of his life in Baltimore, Maryland, having moved there for the first time in 1873, where he managed to played a flute for the Peabody Symphony and even become a lecturer at John Hopkins University. He would travel to other places for indeterminate amounts of time, usually for reasons of health but would eventually end up back in Baltimore. In early 1881, at the advise of his doctors, he took to the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina in hopes the high, clean climate would allow him to continue his work and life. In August of that year he took a ride to Lynn, North Carolina in Polk County hoping the climate there would be better for his fever and hemorrhaging which by now had become an ever present companion. It proved to be the final round though as his health took a turn for the worst and he was unable to return to Asheville. He set up an encampment there and on the evening of September 7, 1881 he passed away. His wife had his body returned to Baltimore and buried in Greenmount Cemetery. A large pink colored boulder from the State of Georgia was placed at his burial site with an inscription from one of his poems "Sunrise" "I am lit with the sun".

Although a talented scholar and musician, his death at such an early age left historians wonder "what if?" He lived and worked in argumentatively some of the most turbulent times in our history and did so while fighting a debilitating disease. By his own account his music was a very special part of his personality but his poetry is what he is best remembered for and "The Song of The Chattahoochee" is the poem that endured his legacy as a native Georgian Poet.

The lake was named in his honor because of the tribute he gave to the Chattahoochee River in his poetry. He was also honored by the U.S. Postal Service, which produced an 8-cent commemorative stamp in 1972.

The preceeding article was Courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers