The lake was created in the 1950s by flooding valley communities that contained a cemetery, fueling beliefs that it’s cursed. Historians say some unmarked graves and other structures were swallowed up by its waters.
The stories about mysterious underwater sightings are eerie — especially at Halloween. But the true backstory of Lake Lanier, built over an underwater ghost town, is just as interesting.
The government started offering to buy land from the farmers and residents of the towns. Most were against selling since a lot of the property had been in their families for generations. Eventually, some 700 families sold a total of 56,000 acres to the government, which built a dam on the Chattahoochee River to form the lake.
As their land filled with water in 1956, locals jammed roads and bridges to watch as history vanished before their eyes. Whatever they had abandoned was covered by the rising waters.
Even the lake’s naming was a problem. Some local officials wanted to name it after Georgia politicians. Others sought to name it after a legendary football coach. Eventually they decided to name it after Sidney Lanier, an 18th-century Georgia poet who wrote “Song of the Chattahoochee.”
To prepare the land to be filled with water, the Army Corps of Engineers demolished or moved anything they considered dangerous. They uprooted trees and hauled them away. Barns and wooden structures that could float and endanger watercraft were moved. Major infrastructure such as bridges and water intakes were relocated.
But … the community had a cemetery. While the Corps identified and moved marked graves, it’s likely that some unmarked ones were inadvertently left behind. 70 years ago we didn’t have the technology that we do now to like ground penetrating radar. So its probable that finds of human remains are possible, whether from the antebellum and Civil War periods or of Native American origin from pre-colonial and ancient times. Some believers think unmarked graves also were left behind because they were not easily identified and there was no family to claim them.
Some people say they hear church bells from deep in the lake, but there is no structure as tall as a church steeple and they would have removed the bells.
Over the decades, when the lake’s water levels dropped during drought, submerged roads, tire parts and other artifacts have been exposed. Over the years, divers have reported creepy sightings beneath the murky waters. Some tell stories of freaky catfish as big as a Volkswagen. YouTube is filled with divers showing videos of sunken houseboats and piles of debris.
Between 1994 and October 2020, 203 people have died in drownings and boating incidents at Lake Lanier, according to Mark McKinnon of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
In 2017, longtime diver Buck Buchannon told local media that he sometimes felt body parts in the lake during his many excursions. “You reach out into the dark and you feel an arm or a leg and it doesn’t move,” he said.
But that has not affected the lake’s popularity. With about 12 million visitors last year, Lake Lanier was one of the most-visited Corps-built lakes in the nation, which operates 464 lakes in 43 states. Lake Lanier’s size and popularity contribute to the tall tales — and its high visitation rate also means more fatalities.
One of Lake Lanier’s most popular urban legends involves a car wreck. And that brings us to The Lady in the Lake.
In 1958, just two years after the bridge opened, Delia Parker Young and Susie Roberts sped out of a gas station without paying on their way to the nearby town of Dawsonville. As the faint glow of the headlights on Robert’s 1954 Ford sedan lit their way through the southern night. They were two rebels on the run, headed to the Three Gables Roadhouse—and they never made it home.
18 months later, a local fisherman would spot the decomposing body of a woman beneath Jerry D. Jackson bridge. In what must have been a gruesome scene, the bloated body floated on the lake’s surface, it was missing two toes from its left foot with its arms spread out, missing both hands; Had they become missing from the wreck or from the lake’s catfish having a snack? It’s no surprise, then, that the body could not be identified by coroners. But even then, locals near Dawsonville were already convinced of its identity. The mysterious body had to be Delia Parker Young.
They knew it was Delia, they said, because dozens of drivers on State Route 53 had seen her after she vanished, appearing as a ghostly, handless apparition wandering down the highway in a blue dress. The ghost appeared to be lost, they said, almost as if she was searching, but for what no one could say.
Decades passed as Delia’s legend grew into a local myth. Visiting the old bridge became a right of passage at Dawsonville High School, as generations of young thrill seekers sped by in search of the Lady of Lake Lanier. Some returned to school the next day swearing they’d seen her.
By November of 1990, Susie Roberts was all but forgotten, and the mysterious body found by a fisherman in 1959 lay resting in an unmarked grave. For all practical purposes, there was little evidence left from the final ride of that Ford sedan, no fabric remaining but the bridge, the highway and a myth. That’s when fate intervened.
Years of wear and tear had finally caught up with the Jerry D. Jackson bridge. As work began on renovations that would expand and refit the bridge, construction workers dredging the bottom of the lake made a startling discovery. Filled with mud, half-buried on the lake’s bottom, they found the twisted wreckage of a 1954 Ford.
The bones of Susie Roberts were still inside. Dental records soon verified Roberts’ identity, and the discovery made national headlines. Finally, after 34 years, residents of northeast Georgia had a definitive answer to their mystery. Susie Roberts and Delia Parker Young had run off the road high atop the Jerry D. Jackson bridge.
The unmarked tomb was re-labeled with Delia’s name. And the Lady of Lake Lanier? Some say you can still find her wandering the backroads of State Route 53, slowly making her way from Dawsonville to the top of the old bridge.