It’s relatively well known that Lake Sidney Lanier is man-made, however, there’s a long history of lake culture in the area.

There was a smaller lake on the Chattahoochee River before Lake Lanier. It was called Dunlap Dam and completed in 1908. 3 miles outside of Gainesville at the end of Riverside Drive, the back water of the dam was called Lake Warner, named after General A.J. Warner a congressman from Marietta, Ohio.

Warner had come to Hall County and built a power plant on the Chestatee River. Dunlap Mill at the end of Riverside Drive helped provide electricity for Gainesville. Electric street cars transported people to the lake for boating and picnics on the lake’s sandy beaches.

There was a similar dam and mill on the other side of the lake on the Chestatee River. Bolding Mill and Dam stood where Bolding Mill Park is today.

You can also see the names of lots of old bridges over the river in the names of todays parks. These include Belton Bridge, Thompson Bridge and Keith’s Bridge (covered).

Lake Lanier Before it Was a Lake

Before it was a lake, the land on which Lake Lanier was built was home to a thriving community known as Oscarville. In the early 20th century, Oscarville was a historically Black town bustling with life, housing around 250 families. The town was characterized by its farmland and local businesses, which played a significant role in the community’s culture and economy.

However, Oscarville also bore witness to racial violence, including the wrongful conviction and lynching of young Black individuals in 1912, followed by the forced expulsion of Black residents from Forsyth County.

Lake Lanier Approval Process

Congressional approval came in 1946 with the River and Harbors Act which covered waterways across the country. Congress appropriated money for new projects that included $45 million for Lake Lanier. 56% of the budget went on design and construction. 44% was spent to buy up the necessary land and relocate families.

The lake’s original intent was to serve as a hydroelectric power source, provide water for a fast-growing Atlanta, and operate as a flood control mechanism for the region.

Buying the Land

The government had to buy 56,000 acres of private land and was probably the most difficult part of the process. Eminent Domain allowed the government to buy land for public use.

To begin with, land was purchased at the south end of the lake, around the dam site. Land that would be flooded by the rising waters was purchased piece by piece over the next few years.

Oscarville: Controversial Displacement

As part of the eminent domain justification, the town of Oscarville was effectively erased. Over 1,000 people (predominantly African American families), many thriving local businesses, and even cemeteries were displaced.

This displacement led to many different network TV features, books, movies, documentaries and even theories about the lake being haunted in various ways, including the underwater ghost town.

How Was Lake Lanier Made?

Ground for Buford Dam was broken on March 1, 1950 and work was completed in 1957. The seven years involved enormous amounts of construction including:

  • Three saddle dikes
  • Excavation of deep gorges for the intake a powerhouse facilities
  • Buford Dam
  • Bridges, highways, access roads and utility building

The Corps of Engineers oversaw the work but contracted out to private companies who did the actual construction.

Lake Lanier was physically excavated and then flooded gradually over a number of years.

February 1, 1956 (one month short of six years after the ground-breaking) the dam was closed for the first time. It took two and a half more years for the lake to form fully. On August 1, 1958 the lake reached 1067.77 feet or “full-pool” at that time.

The official dedication of the lake was held on October 1957. Many of the people involved moved on soon afterwards to build Lake Hartwell further north.

Enjoying the Lake

Boaters turned up as soon as the water started backing up. People started enjoying themselves even before water had cleared the treetops.

As the lake filled it was allowed to  cover trees up to a certain level, then treetops were cut and banks cleared to reach the “full pool” level. Streetcars continued to carry people from downtown Gainesville and out to the end of Riverside Drive.

Olympic Moment

The Olympic Torch travelled across America to Atlanta in 1996. It came through Gainesville and was rowed across Lake Lanier at the canoe and kayak venue. Huge temporary stands were erected to seat the spectators.

Lake Lanier Drought

Lake Lanier has been subject to lower water levels recently, but from 1998 – 2002 and 2007 – 2009 saw particularly prolonged periods of persistently low levels.

While Lake Lanier’s water levels of always fluctuated depending on local water supply, the period from 2007 to 2009 saw abnormally intense drought conditions due to a faulty lake gauge (which lead the Army Corp of Engineers to accidentally release excess water).

This particularly period of drought revealed many old structures and time capsules from the past in certain areas of the lake-bed.

While the 2007 – 2009 drought was directly caused by a faulty gauge, explosive population growth in the Atlanta metro area has put increasing pressure on Lake Lanier’s water supply.

Due to it’s multi-purpose existence, Lake Lanier’s water levels can fluctuate based on many different conditions beyond dry spells, from flood control, water supply (drinking water), power generation, or even fish & wildlife management concerns.

Lake Lanier Parks & Recreation Today

Today Lake Lanier features over 90 different parks, dozens of campgrounds, and many different water leisure activities.

Across it’s 680+ miles of shoreline, Lake Lanier also features over 20 different swimming beaches and dozens of boat ramps.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Lake Lanier

When Was Lake Lanier Built?

Lake Lanier was built over the course of 1950 to 1957, and reached “full pool” by August, 1958.

What is Under Lake Lanier?

In short, a lot. A whole town (Oscarville) once existed at this location and many of the structures were not fully removed prior to the flooding of the lake. Over the years, many boating accidents and even car crashes have added an eclectic mix of relics to the bottom of Lake Lanier.

Who Owns Lake Lanier?

Lake Lanier is almost entirely owned and operated by the Army Corp of Engineers (USACE), one of over 460 that the Corps operates across the United States. Georgia, Alabama, and Florida all have water rights to the supply, due to their location downstream from the reservoir.


  • The Heritage of Hall County, 1818-2001
  • Gainesville 1900-2000
  • Pictoral History of Hall County to 1950

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