What lies beneath: Untold stories now at bottom of Lake Lanier

FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — It’s one of Georgia’s top tourist attractions, but many visitors have no idea Lake Lanier wasn’t always as it is today.

Channel 2’s Berndt Petersen spoke to Gloria Holland, who once lived on the land that is now under the lake.

The 86-year-old pulled out a photo book and flipped through the pages, reliving a time and place in the past.

“This is a picture of myself when I was a baby,” Holland said.

The family had a 200-acre dairy farm along Young Deer Creek in Forsyth County.

“This is a picture of me in the backyard with a cow,” Holland said.

Holland grew up in a safe area. Everyone knew everyone in the neighborhood, and they looked after each other’s children.

“You didn't have any problems with worrying about anything bad happening to you,” Holland said.

But the life she remembers vanished in 1956. That’s the year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Buford Dam.

David Coughlin is an authority. He wrote a book.

“It was the largest earth dam they had every constructed,” Coughlin said.

Officials created a 3,800-acre reservoir named Lake Sidney Lanier. It was built for drinking water and flood control.

“Flooding was a big problem. It wasn't 'if.' It was ‘when,’” Coughlin said.

But a lot of the people who lived there were in the way. They had no choice but to sell their homes and land to the government.

“Someone comes up to you and asks you to pick up and move from an area that you lived there. Maybe your parents or grandparents were there. Even further back. They may have owned the land for decades,” Coughlin said.

For the greater good, 700 families had to go. And the lives they left behind, were buried under 600 billion gallons of water.

Richard Pickering has seen it with his own eyes.

“People think there's nothing down there. They think it's just rocks and mud. It's not. There's a full forest down there,” Pickering said.

Pickering is a professional diver. He makes his living retrieving items lost in the lake. He’s been to the bottom and back.

If Lake Lanier had a Jacques Cousteau, it'd be Pickering.

“It doesn't decompose. It doesn't rot. The limbs, everything is there. So, when you're diving around this, you're diving into the middle of a forest,” Pickering said.

And there are the places people once called home.

Pickering has met some of the families who told him the tale. They relay stories about when they were kids and grew up there, and all the things they did.

“And now they’re out here, and they’re looking at this and saying, ‘Yeah. Right over there is where I used to play. That’s where our house was.' It’s fascinating," Pickering said.

It wasn’t too fascinating to Holland; her childhood is out there in a sunken community.

On the pasture where cows once roamed, Holland’s father went water skiing. The old farm house she grew up in survived, but most of the homes around there did not.

It's a story Holland said needs to be told. Otherwise, the generations that have followed may never know there was once a land under the lake.

“Because they don’t think of what the lake did to the people that were here. The property they owned and spent their lives on, buried in water,” Holland said.