Photo illustration by Alberto Mier/CNN.

A Georgia lake's dark and deadly history has some people seeing ghosts

Updated 0803 GMT (1603 HKT) October 31, 2020

(CNN)Legend has it the ghost of a long-dead woman roams this lake in a flowing blue dress. Mysterious arms reach out for swimmers from the watery depths. Angry spirits call people home to submerged graves.

These and other spooky tales have haunted Lake Lanier, in the foothills of the northern Georgia mountains, for decades.
To many Georgians the large, serpentine lake northeast of Atlanta is a recreational hotspot, popular for boating and water sports. But supernatural lore and urban legends about the lake have found a receptive audience on social media, where they've found legions of believers.
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.
More than 200 people have died in swimming and boating accidents on the lake since 1994, adding to its dark history. And the Netflix drama "Ozark," which has its own high body count, films scenes at the lake.
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.
More than 200 people have died at Lake Lanier since 1994.

The lake was mired in controversy from the start

The controversy surrounding the lake, as described by author and historian Lisa Russell, started long before its construction.
Before the land was buried in water, it was lush and fertile, with rabbits and squirrels scampering around. Communities thrived, with fancy names like Castleberry Bottom, Russell said.
Then came the US Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted to create a lake to provide Atlanta and surrounding counties with power and water.
The government offered locals money for their farmland. Most of it had been in families for generations, making it almost impossible to put a price tag on it, said Russell, a writing instructor at Georgia Northwestern Technical College and author of several books on the lost towns of North Georgia.
The Army Corps flooded farmland bought from hundreds of families to create Lake Lanier.
"At first, the government assured land owners that they were being paid for the true value of the land and buildings, but residents found it hard to price generations of memories, hard work and deep roots," Russell wrote in her book, "Underwater Ghost Towns of North Georgia." "A host of emotions accompanied the talk of relocation: anger, resentment, fear, anxiety, bewilderment and apprehension. To them, their land was priceless."
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 the rising waters.
Even the lake's naming was contentious, Russell said. 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."