On a moonlit night on Lake Burton, some say you might hear the pealing of a church bell. It would not be coming from a nearby church. Rather, the mournful tolling is said to be an echo from 100 years distant when that bell was ringing in Burton, the town that lays submerged under the lake that took its name.
Originally called Powellsville, Burton was founded by Scotch-Irish settlers in the early 1800s. The town straddled the fast-moving Tallulah River, where Dick’s and Timpson creeks flowed into the river. The community’s name later was changed to Burton after Jeremiah Burton, a Baptist preacher and owner of a general store. By that time, Burton was the largest town in Rabun County. And the town was isolated, requiring a full day to travel the 15 or so miles to Clayton by horse-drawn wagon.
The center of community life in the fertile Tallulah valley, Burton was a prosperous town as evidenced by the large homes that stood along the river. The town boasted Baptist and Methodist churches; two general stores, one of which housed the post office; and a sawmill, gristmill and syrup mill. The pride of the town was the steel bridge built across the Tallulah River in 1899 at a cost of $1,925. It was a prime meeting place for the community. Burton’s schoolhouse was known as Tallulah Academy or central school. In 1913 the school had 60 students in seven grades with two teachers and was stocked with maps, blackboards and about 100 books. The school board spent $400 a year on county schools, with parents paying an additional $5 for each child.
Farming was the lifeblood of Burton, and the river bottoms were ideal for corn, tobacco, vegetables, fruits and walnut groves. Other businesses in Burton included sawmilling, small-scale gold mining and moonshining. Gospel singing conventions were a main form of entertainment for Burton townspeople and other nearby residents. Accounts by former Burton resident Willie Blalock Elliot from a 1982 interview provide another inkling of what life was like back then. She said each family took a dinner to church in homemade baskets every Sunday. She also remembered a waterfall across the road from her house that the family used for refrigeration by storing food behind it on the cool rocks. Ms Elliott concluded that the people of Burton had a good life.
But this bucolic life changed suddenly and forever in 1917.
Georgia Railway and Power Company, the predecessor of Georgia Power, was requiring steadily increasing amounts of electricity to power the streetcar system it operated in Atlanta. To meet this need, the company completed the Tallulah Falls dam and hydroelectric plant at the head of
Tallulah Gorge in 1914, followed by five additional facilities constructed upstream along a 28-mile stretch of the Tallulah and Tugalo rivers. Planning for the dam that would form the Lake Burton reservoir began in 1917. It was not intended originally as a hydroelectric generating station but as a storage and flow-regulating facility for the Tallulah Falls plant downstream, then the third largest in the country.
J.E. Harvey of Tallulah Falls was hired by Georgia Railway and Power in 1917 to acquire the entire town of Burton and much of the surrounding land. Sixty-five property owners eventually sold thousands of acres to the company. The single largest purchase consisted of 1,000 acres from the Gennett Lumber Company that became the site of the dam.
Willie Blalock Elliot recounted: “I reckon my daddy was fairly well satisfied, but dozens of people never were. It just ruined their lives. They were never satisfied.” Some of the folks who sold their land moved to higher ground in the valley; others went to nearby Tiger; and many migrated to Habersham County. However, at least one landowner, a Dr. Murray, did not sell. Owning about 400 acres, he only agreed to give the power company the rights to back water up to his property line but not to submerge his land. Murray’s Cove on Lake Burton is named for him.
Construction of the 128-foot-high Burton Dam was completed in December 1919, and the reservoir was completely filled by the following August. In anticipation of the coming floodwaters, houses had been torn down or moved and cemeteries were relocated to higher ground. In a 1933 interview, Bennie Eller recalled: “It took us about a year-and-a-half, cutting all the timber and clearing it off before they turned the water on to fill it up. What was fit for anything they took out for lumber, and what wasn’t fit for nothing, they just rolled it in big log piles and burned it.” Any buildings that had not been torn down were washed down to the dam. One story has it that a church steeple floated in the lake for a year before finding a landing spot on the shoreline.
It was not until 1927 that the Lake Burton hydroelectric generating station was placed in operation.
Although the town of Burton was submerged out of the need for electrical power, it is ironic that none of the electricity generated by this hydro plant benefitted Rabun County and other north Georgia locales. Every kilowatt was transmitted to Atlanta. It was not until the late 1930s that electricity started coming to this area through financing by the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration. The Lake Burton facility and five other hydro plants are still generating electricity with much of their original equipment.
Once where there was farming and a century-old community is now a 2,775-acre recreational lake with stately homes studding its 62 miles of shoreline. So listen carefully the next evening you are boating on Lake Burton. You just might hear a church bell echoing from the past.
This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in The Georgia Mountain Laurel magazine in June 2020.