A fisheye view of Lake Lanier in Atlanta Georgia

Brett Barnhill/Shutterstock (Licensed)

Inside the tortured history of the internet’s most famous haunted lake

Public records show not every drowning death makes the news.

 

Hailey Closson

Tech

On Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, at 11:00am in Gainesville, Georgia, a local deputy received a call from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ranger about a noose and suicide note found deep in a park trail.

The ranger relayed the details, which came from an unidentified citizen in Vann’s Tavern Park, a recreational area in one of the state’s most popular travel destinations, Lake Lanier. 

The officers met on the scene and were led down a walking path parallel to the lake where they found an extension cord fashioned around a tree stump and tied off 12 feet above the ground, according to an official incident report obtained by the Daily Dot.

A yellow Post-It note was found on the tree reading: “Sorry about the mess ID is in right pocket,” and offering their phone password. The text continued, “I have seen things you couldn’t imagine, those moments will disappear in time. Like tears in the rain.” 

The ranger searched the scene but did not find anyone. Local sheriffs could not locate any missing person reports or suicide threats made in the last 48 hours.

No hits for a missing person were made when vehicle tags in the parking lot were run through the state’s crime information center. The case remains unsolved.

The noose is just one in a lengthy trove of police reports all centered on a lake a little over an hour outside Atlanta. 

Lake Lanier, a man-made reservoir named after Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, stretches 600 miles across five counties in Northern Georgia. 

Its dubious beginning came in the 1950s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a dam near an extinguished Black community and Native American burial grounds. 

The Daily Dot obtained land records, court proceedings, and fatality reports from local and federal agencies involved in the history of the land and lake, finding details of previously unreported drownings and mysterious events. 

The files help paint a fuller history of a lake that’s captured the internet’s attention for over a decade.

“700 people lost their homes … they always had farms, it was ancestral land that they had for four or five generations,” said author and professor Lisa Russell about the federal government’s seizure of land for the construction of the Buford Dam on the Chattahoochee River.

Russell, who works at Kennesaw State University, has studied the history of the lake. The people relocated, she said, “thought they were getting a lot of money … these people were subsistence farmers.” But without land, the money left them “poorer than they were before, and to me, that’s the sad and the haunting part of it.”

As part of a congressional effort after World War II to develop the country’s waterways–for flood control, national defense, and power production—the government began buying up land, offering residents compensation that pales in comparison to the land value today. 

Land purchase records disclose the paltry sums paid to Forsyth County residents.

James Castleberry is named as a landowner on a warranty deed from June 1954 between Forsyth County and Georgia, detailing the coordinates of a large plot designated to be flooded. Castleberry was paid just $5,825 (around $67,000 adjusted to inflation) by the federal government for 48 acres.

The document orders Castleberry to harvest his crops before the end of December 1954 or the “United States shall have a good and indefeasible title to said crops without notice to said parties.”

A declaration of taking from November 1954 lists Zack Patterson and “all parties in possession whose identities … are unknown” under a series of addresses as residents on 132 acres of land. 

They were collectively paid $3,600 (just a hair over $42,000 today) by the government. 

On a separate page, 40 landowners from multiple families with around 56 acres were offered $3,250 ($38,023 now) divided among them. 

The exact amounts paid are unspecified but split equally, each person would have received $81, or about $947 today.

Businesses were also shut down to build the lake, including several banks and an ice cream shop. 

From November 1954 to June 1955, about 4,800 acres spanning Hall, Forsyth, and Gwinnett counties were bought by the government. In total, $220,000 was issued to home and business owners, which is just $2.6 million today.

Now, all that money paid out couldn’t even buy you one lakefront home, which can retail for over $3 million, according to Zillow.

But the seizure of land in the 1950s wasn’t the first time the people of Lake Lanier had been forcibly removed. Decades earlier, terrorist attacks by white neighbors drove away a community of Black families.

Oscarville was a small prosperous agricultural community in Forsyth County formed in the late 1800s during Reconstruction.

In September 1912, the body of 18-year-old Mae Crow, a white woman from the town, was found brutalized in the woods, showing signs of sexual assault. A group of young Black men, including a witness to Crow’s family removing her body from the scene, were accused of her rape and murder by outraged white residents, according to Atlanta History Center.

The county sheriff questioned and arrested Ernest Knox, the teenager watching the Crow’s search party; Oscar Daniel, Knox’s extended family member; and Rob Edwards, the husband of one of Knox’s cousins. Edwards was dragged from his jail cell by a 2,000-person mob, hung, and shot in a public lynching.

Following the attack, a mass of enraged white locals violently ousted the county’s Black residents, destroying buildings, raiding homes, and burning down churches, pushing over 1,000 Black people out of Forsyth. Those who survived dispersed to neighboring Georgia counties. 

Left behind, when the community fled, were unmarked African American graves and Native American burial mounds, which now reside at the bottom of Lake Lanier’s 200 feet deep waters.  

Russell expounds on this in her book: “Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia.” 

Lake Lanier, as well as Lakes Tallulah, Tugalo, and Yonah, were built before federal regulations requiring dams to be archaeologically investigated, drowning the histories of the Coosa people who were captured, killed by foreign diseases, or forced to relocate further south by Spanish conquistadors, and the Cherokee people ousted in the Trail of Tears in the mid-1800s.

“I think it’s cursed because of the land, because of the environment, because of the way they treated people,” Russell said. “I wish they’d done it better, the archaeology … it’s like that history is sealed under water and nobody’s allowed to touch it.” 

Conspiracies about Lake Lanier’s haunting have gone viral on social media from African Americans and Georgia natives issuing warnings about death lurking just beneath the surface.

On TikTok, there are over 16,000 videos warning swimmers to avoid the lake because of angered spirits, unrecovered dead bodies, and flooded cemeteries from lost communities. 

Many of the deaths have been reported by outlets like CNN, USA Today, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

However, dozens of drowning cases in the last few years have not been covered or explained.

Between police reports from local counties and a list of death reports collected from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Daily Dot found at least 94 people died from 2013 to 2023.

On Sept. 27, 2023 in Dawson County, a sergeant responded to a welfare check for a missing 75-year-old man, last seen on surveillance footage on a Lake Lanier dock. The man’s daughter called him after she saw their family boat wasn’t tied down and had drifted away.

She spoke to him and said he asked how to connect his phone to the Bluetooth radio on the boat. 

An hour after their phone call, the daughter checked the dock’s camera again and saw that the boat was still not tied down. The audio on the camera showed the boat’s radio was playing, but she could not see her father. She contacted her neighbor to secure the boat, but her father could not be found. His phone and keys were inside the boat.

The responding officer went to the dock behind their home to search, calling two more sergeants and deploying a drone. Attempts to find the man were unsuccessful. A boat from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources scanned the area and found something deep in the water. 

The man did not have a history of suicidal thoughts or threats and had long recovered from a drinking problem, according to his daughter. His body was found under the dock the next day by a dive team.

Less than a month later, a 29-year-old man entered the water unaware of the lake’s steep drop-offs. He quickly sank under the water. Two unidentified individuals almost drowned trying to save him, according to an official fatality report. He was found 10 minutes later and resuscitated by lakegoers but passed away the next day at Northside Forsyth Medical Center.

Those deaths are just a few of the frequent incidents at the lake. From January to July 2019, nine people died, with drownings in May alone.

Seven people drowned in less than a month in the summer of 2020 from June 14 to July 25. Those causes of death were from falling overboard during fishing trips, swimming while intoxicated, and falling off of boats. Others involved exhaustion while in the water and suicide. 

In 2021, eight people drowned from April to December, including one who was run over by a rented pontoon boat and one who suffered a medical emergency while swimming. Five people drowned from May to July 2022 and eight people drowned in 2023, including an elderly woman who accidentally drove her car into the lake. 

In one incident, a victim called for help before sinking, saying he felt a tingling sensation where he was swimming. A group of bystanders who came to his aid also reported the sensation and left to call 911. The man was rescued but later succumbed to his injuries.

Compared to Georgia’s other lakes, Lake Lanier’s drowning rates are markedly higher.

From 2008 to 2015, the 11 lakes comprising Georgia’s Power Lakes saw 21 fatalities including drownings and boating incidents, according to a report from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

But at Lake Lanier, 23 people died in two years from 2013 to 2015. From 2013 to 2018 at Lake Allatoona, a reservoir in northwest Georgia, 20 people drowned. In those same years, 51 people drowned at Lake Lanier. 

Kareema Bangura, a resident of Gwinnett County, moved to Georgia as a child and visited the lake with her family. She’d gone a few times but stopped when she heard rumors about its haunting. 

Bangura’s first suspicions of the lake came from news about Usher’s former stepson drowning in 2012. She later learned about Oscarville while studying at Howard University. 

The lake’s visitors, she said, should know about its roots for their safety and as a greater effort to educate tourists about the country’s history of violence and erasure of African American history. 

“This country has a history of anti-Blackness and a lot of violence that needs to be talked about and rediscovered,” Bangura said, suggesting a legacy museum like the Equal Justice Institute in Alabama to honor the lost cities and communities under the lake. 

“It’s very scary. It’s very scary to see just how many people don’t know.”


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