Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook
The Haunting of Lake Lanier
By Anjali Enjeti
A restless energy seized the air. It was March 2020, right after schools began shutting down due to
COVID, and a friend and I were hiking Laurel Ridge Trail, a four-mile loop along the southern rim of Lake Sidney Lanier. A sprawling amoeba, the man-made lake built in 1956 for flood control, drinking water, and hydroelectric power touches five counties in North Georgia. It is named after a nineteenth-century Georgia poet, Sidney Lanier, whose poem “Song of the Chattahoochee” is an ode to the river that feeds it.
I had just canceled two trips out of town, and my friend, whose father had passed away in England a few weeks earlier, had recently returned from settling his affairs. The news about the rapid spread of the virus, coupled with President Trump’s rampant disinformation, filled us with anxiety. We longed for an escape, some fresh air. We jumped in my car and drove eleven miles north to the lake.
The western end of the trail runs along the Chattahoochee River near Buford Dam, the colossal barrier that birthed the lake. The rains that had recently moved through this part of the state caused extensive flooding, closing several of the local parks, as well as the pedestrian bridge in front of the dam.
Before the dam and the lake came to be, seven hundred families inhabited these sixty square miles an hour’s drive north of Atlanta. Farms, forests, homes, churches, mills, businesses, and cemeteries covered the area. In preparation for the lake, the U.S. government forced residents off land that had been in their families for generations. The Army Corps of Engineers then relocated most of the structures. If the Corps couldn’t obtain permission from family members, the graves stayed put. Roads, bridges, and some trees were also left behind, as was the old Gainesville Speedway. During a severe drought in 2007, the same year I moved to Georgia, the racetrack’s concrete stadium seating breached the surface as if it had been dug up in an archeological excavation.
It took a few years, but the lake eventually filled. Today, at its deepest point by the dam, it plummets 200 feet.
From the Chattahoochee River, the trail winds back east across Buford Dam Road to the lake’s southern lip. As the sun began its rapid descent, the water turned black and murky. Around the next bend, we spotted a partially submerged steel dock . Was it safe? Despite our reservations, we walked out to the far end to take a few photos and then rushed back to the shore.
We were lucky. We had tempted fate, and survived.
Lake Lanier, the largest lake in Georgia, is one of the deadliest in the U.S. Since its formation, 500 people have died there, nearly 200 since 1994. About eleven million visitors descend upon its shores every year, about the same number as visit the Louvre. But the lake’s popularity doesn’t explain the high number of fatalities. Lake Allatoona, forty miles to the west, receives close to the same number of visitors every year but has only one-third of the deaths.
Drownings or motor vessel accidents are the usual culprits. There is no upward or downward trend, and no way to predict, year after year, how many victims the reservoir will claim. Sadly, what many of these deaths increasingly have in common is the race of the victims. The lake is a popular recreation spot for Georgia’s Latinx community, who primarily hail from Hall County on the eastern shore (which is now twenty-eight percent Latinx) as well as the Atlanta metro area.
One explanation for the high number of fatalities lies beneath the surface. Debris and rubble from before the lake’s construction, as well as everything from sunken boats to lawn chairs to fishing wire, create a treacherous underwater obstacle course. This, coupled with the lake’s low visibility, makes rescue operations dangerous.
But there’s another theory for the body count. Legend has it Lake Lanier is haunted.
The perpetrators vary. Some blame spirits from the graves the Corps of Engineers never relocated in 1956. Others fault the phantoms of the twenty-seven victims who have died over the years at the lake but whose bodies were never successfully recovered.
The most famous ghost story, known as Lady of the Lake, reigns supreme in these parts. In 1958, two friends, Delia May Parker Young and Susie Roberts, departed a dance. After getting gas and skipping out on paying for it, they skidded off a bridge while crossing the lake and disappeared. The following year, a fisherman came across a decomposed, unidentifiable body floating near one of the bridges. It wasn’t until 1990, over three decades later, that officials discovered a 1950s Ford sedan with remains belonging to Roberts. Which meant that the body found way back in 1959 must have belonged to her friend, Parker Young.
Locals didn’t need a forensic analysis to know this. They had seen Parker Young themselves, wearing the blue dress she had borrowed that night from Roberts, wandering near the bridge. With her handless arms, so the story goes, she snatches unsuspecting lake-goers and drags them to the bottom.
I had no idea Lake Lanier was lethal the first few years I lived in Georgia. I was simply taken in by its beauty. On sunny days, it’s spectacular. Thickets of lush green groves, mainly oaks and hickories, encircle sparkling blue water. One hundred and sixty small “islands” (hilltops too high for the Corps of Engineers to have submerged) crest above the surface.
It is a vibrant and diverse ecosystem, especially on the southern end. Latinx, Asian, and Black visitors fill the surrounding parks. Every summer, our family joins them. We toss towels and flotation devices into the car, and head to the crescent beach of Buford Dam Park. The crisp savory scent of barbecue wafts through the air. Frisbees and picnic baskets blanket the grassy knolls. Geese and ducks waddle among them in search of leftovers. The swimming hole, far from any boating area, is calm, the sand underfoot soft.
My three daughters have spent hours splashing in the clear shallow water and trying to catch fish that encircle their feet. When they were little, they’d build towers with plastic buckets and write their names with sticks on the shore. We’d stay as long as we could, until our skin withered and pruned, until the last handful of grapes was consumed and the sun gave way to the moon.
My naivete about Lake Lanier’s dangers ended abruptly in 2012, when eleven-year-old Kile Glover, the stepson of r&b singer Usher, died from injuries he suffered when a jet ski collided with his inner tube. After this horrific incident, I began taking a hard look into the other deaths—the dozens of collisions, the drownings of swimmers who disappeared after jumping in, and the drivers who rode their vehicles into the lake.
Our family does not boat, jet ski, or tube at Lake Lanier. We’ve never even visited the lake’s water park. Our radius extends only to designated swimming areas or trails. Still, when I learned how many people had died, it was difficult for me to reconcile what seemed like such a serene place with so much tragedy.
Lake Lanier’s tragic history can be traced back long before it became a lake. Forsyth County, which sits on the western side, was once part of the Cherokee Nation. In the 1830s, the U.S. government expulsed most of its members from what would be one of the southeastern-most origins of the Trail of Tears.
A second expulsion occurred eighty years later, this time involving a different community.
Up until 1912, some 1,100 Black people owned land and operated businesses in Forsyth County. That fall, on September 9, an eighteen-year-old white woman named Mae Crow was raped and murdered close to Browns Bridge on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, in a village called Oscarville.
The crimes were pinned on four young Black people who happened to live nearby. They were sixteen-year-old Ernest Knox, his eighteen-year-old cousin Oscar Daniel, twenty-two-year-old Trussie “Jane” Daniel (Oscar’s sister), and twenty-four-year-old Robert “Big Rob” Edwards. The day after Edwards’s arrest, a white mob invaded his jail cell. He was shot, dragged through the streets, and hanged from a telephone pole just outside the courthouse in Cumming, the county seat.
Crow’s death and Edwards’s lynching begat more violence. White mobs known as night riders went door to door with torches and guns, burning down Black churches and businesses, and demanding that all Black residents of Forsyth County vacate immediately. The residents quickly abandoned their land, their crops, their homes, and most of their belongings, and the whites picked over and pillaged what remained.
Then in October, a jury took a little over an hour to convict Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniel for Crow’s killing. (Trussie Daniel’s charges were dismissed.) Five thousand people gathered to watch the two teenage boys be hanged. It is widely believed that Edwards, Knox, and Daniel were innocent of the crime.
When Lake Lanier was formed in the 1950s, it washed over Oscarville and turned it into an underwater ghost town. And, incredibly, Forsyth County remained an all-white county for a few more decades.
In January 1987, Hosea Williams, who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, attempted to lead a unity march in Forsyth to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He was met with white counter-protestors and violence. A week later, in a second attempt, Williams was joined by Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, and 20,000 more marchers to Cumming’s courthouse. It was the largest civil rights demonstration since Dr. King’s funeral in 1968.
Soon thereafter, the demographics of Forsyth County gradually began to shift. In 1990, sixteen Black people, 635 Latinx, and 81 Asians made their homes there. While the Latinx and Asian populations have steadily grown, today Black people represent only four percent of the population.
Last summer, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, Forsyth residents of all races took to the streets to peacefully protest. They rallied on Cumming’s courthouse steps, the same spot where Edwards was lynched 108 years earlier. In January, two brothers, Larry Strickland and Leroy Grogan, whose grandmother was run out of the county in 1912, unveiled a historical marker to honor Edwards and acknowledge the injustice of his death.
Forsyth, just like any other place in the U.S., is still struggling to reckon with its racist past. But the seeds of inclusivity have been planted and are starting to take root. And while the county is still largely Trump country, the election last year may foreshadow the emergence of a different kind of politics. The lower portion of the county, which includes Cumming, what was once Oscarville, and the southern shore of Lake Lanier, falls into Georgia’s seventh congressional district. As of this year, it is now represented by a Democrat, Congresswoman Carolyn Bourdeaux.
It is this storied past—beginning with the Cherokee removal, to the banishment of Black people in Forsyth County, to the lake’s disembodied souls in search of some kind of absolution—that I carry with me whenever I visit.
A few weeks after my trip to Laurel Ridge Trail, like the rest of the U.S., Georgia began shutting down. With most restaurants and stores closed, Georgians flocked to state parks. Our governor refused to mandate masks, so few visitors bothered to wear them. Though I longed for another trip to Lake Lanier, the thought of crowds kept me away.
Mid-June marked my middle daughter’s Sweet Sixteen. Like her sisters, she missed her friends terribly and was bored out of her mind. I wanted nothing more than to find a way to make her day special, despite COVID. On the morning of her birthday, we woke to unseasonably cool weather. The sky was an uninspiring steel gray.
Might fewer people visit our favorite beach at the lake?
We decided to take our chances. Late in the afternoon, we packed a cooler full of food and water. We managed to stuff our large blowup alligator into the trunk. Our expectations were low. If the beach was too crowded, we’d turn right around and come home. On the twenty-minute drive there, I said a silent prayer to the lake. Please, we really need a few minutes and a place to ourselves.
When we arrived, only a few other vehicles idled in the parking lot. The beach was practically empty. We made a beeline to the far end, and had a fifty-foot stretch to ourselves. The girls grabbed our inner tubes and noodles and leapt into the water. I settled into a chair, dug my toes into the cool sand, and watched them act like the teens and pre-teens they were for the first time since the pandemic started.
A light breeze tickled my shoulders. Was it merely a breeze or the Lady of the Lake? And what of the celestial beings lingering near their graves buried deep under the water? Though I have never been one to believe in ghosts, I have always believed in stories.
I leaned my head back and shut my eyes. Just to be on the safe side, I attempted to bargain with the spirit world. We will hug the beach, and the gentle waters that lap it. But we will never cross the rope boundary of the swimming area. The belly of the reservoir, with its deep, dark waters, and all of its mysteries and secrets, we will leave to the dead.
They are the rightful occupants, after all.
The once ominous sky seemed pleased with my offering. A few minutes later, the grayness faded. It was replaced by a pink, and then orange hue, until at last, the clouds parted so that the day’s last light could finally shine through.