Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
I live in the northern half of Georgia, which to those who are unaware, is full of hill country and mountains. The Appalachian trail starts in North Georgia, as do many of the tributaries that feed our major rivers. Around 100 years ago, as electricity became a more common fixture in American life, southern power companies began damming up rivers in North Georgia to produce hydroelectric power. As the valleys filled with water, large reservoirs become permanent fixtures in the hills of Appalachia. Though most lakes engulfed previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited land, a few where built at the expense of a small town or settlement. Such is the case with Lake Burton.
The town of Burton, which was best described as a small collection of mountain settlements, was dissolved and sold to the Georgia Power Company in 1917 to build the Lake Burton dam. As the floodgates closed, the small abandoned town of Burton Georgia became swallowed up by the rising waters. This spooky concept of burying completely intact churches, graveyards, homes and stores under hundreds of feet of water conjures up some rather eerie imagery. Coupled with the looming mountains, rainy climate, isolated atmosphere, and rich mountain culture of superstition and lore, such imagery has created a slew of legends about the lake. “People have dived down with scuba gear and seen the town,” some will say. “At night, the people buried below the lake walk straight out of the water.” “On full moons when the lake is low enough, a church steeple rises at the center of the lake, and a surreal fog covers the reservoir.” These legends and stories are just that; the conjurings of a mountain culture rife with superstitious predispositions. However, given my experiences at the lake, I can no longer write off all of Burton’s lore with the brevity and assurance that I once did.
I say “experiences,” but it was really just one experience. A very real, very startling experience, but a single experience nonetheless. My aunt and uncle own a cabin on lake Burton. Unlike most other lakes in Georgia, lake Burton was built over forty years before Atlanta’s primary water source, Lake Sydney Lanier. As a much older lake, some of the houses on Burton follow a similar pattern of age.
My aunt and uncle’s cabin was probably built in the 1940s or 1950s. Consequently, its small, simple, and quaint. My uncle, a homebuilder by trade, renovated and added to the house some many years ago, but the pine walls and antique fixtures of the interior remained. Low lighting, wooden floors that creak an endearing amount, board and batten exterior walls painted a Georgia red, green shutters, et cetera; a classic, cozy cabin on a mountain lake. It’s important for me to preface that even at the time, myself being in seventh grade, never found the house scary or creepy. It had a warmness to it, a feature juxtaposed well to the often damp, grey conditions outside.
The lake itself is a little different. It isn’t spooky in a startling way, rather its eeriness very subtle and natural. For example, It always seemed to be rainy or cloudy when we visited the cabin. This, coupled with the “mountain light” effect (being surrounded by steep mountains makes sunrises later and sundowns sooner), created a slightly dimmer environment. The water, which was always crystal clear, was naturally cold all year round. In the mornings until midday, fog would roll atop the water like spectral clouds skimming the surface. Most of the docks where made from old, green wood fastened straight into the earth below the waterline. The often-flat water reflected the steep hills that surrounded the house, and it almost looked as the exposed rock faces and towering hills were about to swallow the lake up into the earth. That’s Lake Burton; a very natural, grey place where beauty and quiet eeriness coexist quite well.
To understand this story a little better, one must be somewhat what familiar with the layout of this house. As most houses built into the side of a hill, the cabin has an upstairs entrance and a downstairs entrance. Both floors are, in one way, at ground level. The upstairs part of the house is the common area. Being on the smaller side, the cabin’s living area gives way to the dining area, which gives way to the small kitchen. These three areas are located in one big room, with no doors or walls between them. In fact, the only separate rooms upstairs are the small bathroom and upstairs master bedroom. The living area looks out onto a big wooden porch, which in turn looks out over the small backyard and lake. Just inside the upstairs entrance to the house lies a very narrow set of downward leading wooden stairs. At the base of these stairs is a bedroom to the left, a common area to the right, and on around the corner of the common area lies another bedroom. Across from this final bedroom, facing the lake, stands another exterior door that leads into the backyard from the porch. This door seldom gets used, as the entire basement is used solely for sleeping- very little conversing or visiting ever takes place down there.
The story begins with the long drive from my house north, to the hills of the blue ridge. The ride is always beautiful, never in a vibrant or exotic manner, but in a mystic, grey mountainous way. You wind through grassy hills and pastures, through winding river roads and streams, through valleys and ridges and mountainsides, all the time feeling further and further from city life. Isolation grows as the ride continues. Nature gets more influential on the landscape; the road is forced to wind about and twist around the hills. Trees loom over the one lane road until, out of nowhere, a huge lake appears to your right-hand side; Lake Burton. You drive for a few more minutes, down a few one-way winding streets, until a grey gravel path delivers you right at the front of my Aunt and Uncle’s cabin.
Being in middle school at the time, I was eager to explore, swim, fish, jump off the dock, boat, tube and what have you.We unpacked the car in hast, fearing the grey skies would make good on their threat of rain. The mountain grass and stone path down to the water was always damp and slippery, as the sun seldom had time to do its job of drying in the wet mountain climate.
This particular trip was different than previous ones. In the past, my aunt and uncle had accompanied our family to the lake, making for a house full of family to enjoy the isolation and beauty of the area. However, my aunt and uncle decided to give my parents the single, brass house key for a three-day weekend. And so, it was just the four of us, my father, younger brother, mother, and myself. I remember having to unpack more of the car than usual, as my mother was virtually immobile from a foot surgery she had undergone the previous week. We brought coolers of food and drinks, fishing gear, clothes and the like. It was looking like three days well spent in a stunning part of our home state.
We settled in that evening, enjoying the cool water and boat before the afternoon rain set in. I remember quite vividly heading to the dock that night in the pitch blackness of night as my father cooked burgers on the back porch, rain pouring down like crazy, trying to fish for catfish with some hotdog pieces and a Mag-light. I was unsurprisingly unsuccessful.
I don’t remember much about the next day or two, as the evening rain dragged on through the remainder of our stay. Given the size of the house, we probably went into town to explore and shop around, to return later in the evening for a home-cooked mountain dinner. My Mom would cook in the vintage kitchen while my father stood pressed against the wall on the porch, trying to stay under the roof-line and out of the rain as he grilled. I can’t remember what we had for dinner that night, but I do remember my dad falling very ill over whatever we ate. He disappeared into the upstairs master bedroom before it was even dark out. Me and my mother and brother stayed up listening to the pounding rain, watching some older movie on the tiny corner television. I recall thinking to myself that I was getting to stay up late for my age, and dreaded getting up the next morning to pack up and leave.
We all genuinely enjoyed the house and lake, it was a pleasant escape from the rest of the world. As we grew wearier, we all departed to our rooms. First my brother, who went downstairs to the bedroom furthest from the stairs. Then my mother, accompanying my now snoring father in the upstairs master bedroom. She struggled through the house with her broken foot on a surgical scooter she’d rented from the hospital. Finally, I retired to my room at the bottom of the old pine stairs.
The room was three sides concrete wall, with an ancient dresser replacing a closet, and an enormous bed with a heavy red comforter. Though muffled by the concrete walls, I could still hear the steady mountain rain tapping at the small window at the top of the far wall. I crawled in bed after leaving my door half way open, a tad of light creeping in from some dim light in the common area, and I drifted off to sleep.
Something woke me up in the middle of the night. I turned sleepily to the bright red numbers on the alarm clock. It read 2:43. I always hated waking up in the middle of the night, as I found it difficult to fall back asleep in unfamiliar places. However, this night I didn’t have any such problem. Just as my eyes were closing once more, It occurred to me what had woken me up. I heard my father coming down the noisy wooden stairs. The sound stopped as he reached the carpeted basement floor. I saw his silhouette fill my doorway, no features or details to speak of in the absence of light, and then he continued around the corner into the common area. I heard the door across the basement open to the sound of a clicking lock and the definite sound of mountain rain outside. Then, the basement’s accompanying screen door slammed shut. I thought it odd that my dad would come downstairs to go outside, as his room was upstairs and that basement door seldom got used (cobwebs had actually covered the door when I had looked at it the day before). Exhausted from the day, I drifted back off to sleep.
As I arose the next morning, the rain had let up and left behind a gray, wet world for us to leave from. When I got upstairs, my mother was cooking breakfast in the kitchen; foot resting on her hospital scooter. We talked a little and exchanged good mornings. She asked me what I wanted for breakfast and I responded with my order. Then she asked me how I slept. I told her I slept fairly well considering it wasn’t my real bed, and that I only woke up once. Then the peculiar incident of my father coming downstairs popped back into my mind. My father was still asleep in the room, exhausted from his sickness the previous day.
“Hey mom, why did dad go out the basement door late last night” I remember asking my mother. She barely looked up from what she was cooking, and responded “Oh honey, dad hasn’t been up since his head hit the pillow last night. He was exhausted yesterday.” This puzzled me, as I so vividly remembered him, or someone, coming downstairs and peering into my room. However, I trusted my mother’s words. She usually woke up if my father did, as she’s a fairly light sleeper. Also, it was unlike my father to wake up at odd hours, especially if he was tired enough to snore so loudly. I asked, if she had perhaps come down and peered into my room just shy of three o’clock. “Of course not dear.” She stated, just as disinterested as before. “You know I can’t navigate stairs with this foot,” she gestured to the huge cast wrapped around her leg.
Although the figure silhouetted in my doorway looked like a grown man to me, I figured my little brother could somehow be the culprit. However, as he arose from his slumber to the smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen, he denied waking up at all the night before. Plus, he had no business going up the stairs at that hour in the first place, and opening the basement door seemed far fetched as well. My family laughed it off, including myself, as an eerie dream conjured up by the setting we found ourselves in.
As my dad arose and the night before faded into obscurity, we starting packing up our stuff. I never could shake the feeling that something was definitely awry. Around eleven o’clock, with the grey skies looming above and the truck fully loaded, we did one last walk-through of the house to make sure we hadn’t left anything. Upon finding nothing, it was time to lock up the cabin and head back home.
Here’s where the story takes a turn. My uncle John gave my dad a single house key for the cabin. It unlocks every door in the house, the upstairs door, the porch door, and even the old exterior door in the basement. Its common practice to leave the key in the handle of the porch door, as it’s easy to keep track of and see. Upon inspection, the key was missing from its usual location.
We scurried around the cabin, nerves frayed from a rainy weekend in the limited space, looking for the little key. We dug through bags, checked drawers and pockets, table sides and dressers. Finally, an eerie thought came to mind. The basement door had been opened in what I assumed was a dream; certainly, there was no way the key was actually down there in the door. I raced down the stairs, around the corner and there, in the black lock of the old door, was a brass house key. I pulled it out and scurried upstairs, showing my parents with unease. Every family member began to ask me about what I recalled from the night before.
I remembered waking up, the rain still steady outside. I remember looking at the clock. Then, someone or something with little regard for waking me up came down those stairs and peered right into my room. I tried so hard to recall the silhouette, but all I remember was its general shape. It was obviously a grown man, but I could tell little else. Said man, or thing, then moved to the other side of the basement, where it unlocked the seldom-traveled basement door with a key it took from upstairs, opened the main door, and slammed the screen door as it walked out into the blackness of night. It left the main door ever so slightly ajar as it vanished into the rain, a fact I noticed as I grabbed the key that morning day.
Then something chilling occurred to me. The noise that woke me up was feet unabashedly hitting the narrow wooden staircase. However it wasn’t just any feet; it was feet with shoes on. Now, this is a subtle but very definite detail, and it’s what dispels, in my mind, any notion that I had a family member sleep walk (a common response I get when telling this story, no one in my family has ever slept walked before or since that night). No one in my family wears any sort of shoe to bed, and to lace up shoes to walk around the house makes no sense.
I often get the rebuttal that maybe my father drowsily wandered down the stairs in an isolated case of sleepwalking. To that I respond with this; how is it that a man who has never slept walked in his entire life not only does so this one time, but he also retains the mental capacity to put what sounds like hard soled shoes on, find the key upstairs, come downstairs, unlock the basement door, and have no memory of it whatsoever? Also, how does that explain whatever came through that house leaving through the basement never to walk back through the house or up the stairs again? This scenario defies logic, and the bounds of human perception.
I don’t know what that thing was, or where it came from. No one has reported any thing similar from the house since. My family hasn’t been back for reasons not pertaining to the story, but I have a feeling that I would have trouble falling asleep on a rainy night at Lake Burton.
Another eerie fact, and one I seldom mention when telling this story, ties back into one of the previously dispelled legends; that specters rise from the lake at night wandering the shores. If one looks out that basement door, there is a stone path that leads straight from the door to the edge of the lake, where a set of stone steps from a bygone era step down into the frigid water.
I’ve always been skeptical of mountain lore, but the imaginative image of a mountain man’s spirit from some forgotten era rising from the lake in the dead of a rainy night, only to wander around a cabin and return into the depths and darkness of the inconceivable and bone chilling, haunts me to this day.
Credit: Aromatic Cedar
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