History of Lake Lanier: Completion of Buford Dam meant reservoir could fill



This is the fifth and final article in a series recounting the history of Lake Lanier and the Buford Dam and coinciding with a special exhibit on Lake Lanier presented by the Sugar Hill Historic Preservation Society at the city.

The Buford Dam was completed in early 1956, which meant that the reservoir known as Lake Sidney Lanier could begin to fill. Many bridges and roads would be affected when the lake level began to rise. The US Army Corps of Engineers had the daunting task of determining which bridges and roads would be displaced and which would be swallowed up by the lake.

Several factors were taken into consideration in determining whether the bridges and roads below the flood line would be replaced or removed. One of these factors was the frequency of use of the pavement. In today’s world, traffic surveys on particular roads are carried out by the government by placing small black tubes across the road, called portable automatic traffic recorders. The vehicles run on the tubes and the data is recorded.

According to Robert David Coughlin’s book “Lake Sidney Lanier ‘A Storybook Site’: The Early History & Construction of Buford Dam,” traffic studies conducted in the late 1940s and 1950s were much more practical. The government would place men on or near bridges that were to be replaced or removed to count the number of vehicles that crossed the bridge within a specified amount of time.

Understandably, the findings of the US Army Corps of Engineers presented to local and state governments and residents have not always been favorable. Some local and county governments were even compensated for the destruction of bridges they built when said bridge was not moved.

Clark’s Bridge was to be scrapped, but Hall County retaliated against the US Army Corps of Engineers. The county had hired an engineering company that said removing the Clark Bridge completely would cost local residents an additional $ 26,000 per year to travel on an alternate route. Ultimately, a compromise was reached, whereby the US Army Corps of Engineers paid $ 285,000 for the new Clark Bridge, while Hall County should pay between $ 40,000 and $ 90,000.

Years later, Hall County would sue the government again for roads and bridges lost due to the construction of the lake. The county said the government had not adequately replaced roads and highways that had disappeared to make way for the reservoir. Hall County ultimately won $ 1.7 million in federal court over the case. The county would use some of that money to pay for the construction of McEver Road, which was essentially an extension of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard out of Gwinnett County.

Buford Dam Road was the first of many road projects. Construction of Buford Dam Road cost $ 2,836,712 and was carried out by Groves, Lundin and Cox Inc. of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Roads and bridges were worked from about 1951 until 1957. Projects at the southern end of the future lake were the first to be worked, while bridges and roads at the northern end of the the lake would be the last to be built as it would take years for the lake to form at the north end.

On February 1, 1956, the gates to the Buford Dam water intake structure were closed and the lake began the long process of filling to capacity. Lake Lanier would not reach its planned full basin until August 1, 1958. This was about a year behind schedule. The delay was caused by the drought and the US Army Corps of Engineers intentionally slowing the rising waters. The intentional interruptions were made when water levels threatened various work sites along the project.

The official inauguration of the lake took place on the day the gates were closed, February 1, 1956. Twelve dignitaries simultaneously operated switches that closed the gates of the water intake at the Buford Dam. A bucket of water was then removed from Lake Lanier and presented to the director of the Atlanta Water Works Association, Paul Weir, as a gift to signify the future relationship between the reservoir and the city of Atlanta.

A motorcade then proceeded from the roadblock to the town square of Buford town, between Garnett and Scott streets, where an unveiling ceremony took place. A cylindrical monument stands in the plaza that was drilled into solid rock 192 feet below where the intake structure is located. Four bronze plaques honor the people who worked tirelessly to bring the reservoir to fruition, and the monument also includes statistical data on the Sidney Lanier Lake Project.

The monument still stands in the town square as a reminder of the commitment of a handful of people dedicated to improving the region of North Georgia. Atlanta and much of North Georgia wouldn’t be the same without Lake Lanier. The lake injects billions of dollars into the local economy every year, provides drinking water for 5 million people, generates hydroelectric power, provides flood control and a reliable water level downstream. Simply put, Lake Lanier made North Georgia the economic powerhouse it is today.

Photo above: On Friday May 6, 1955, the substructure of the Brown’s Bridge pier was completed. The view is towards the Forsyth County abutment. Photo courtesy of the US Army Corps of Engineers (Mobile District)


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