With Big New Park, Atlanta Protects A Forest With A Long History

Lake Charlotte
The Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve will serve as a huge piece in a possible future network of parks and trails in southeast Atlanta.
Credit Stacy Funderburke / The Conservation Fund

Atlanta has a new and very large park.

The city signed the paperwork Monday to buy the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve, more than 200 acres of woods in southeast Atlanta.

It’s a deep forest, larger than Piedmont Park, and a place that locals had long worried would be turned into a landfill. The forest has been mostly left alone for decades, though the lake in its name has been drained. Now, it will stay a forest, open up for public access, and serve as a huge piece in a possible future network of parks and trails in southeast Atlanta.

“This is a home run,” Atlanta Planning Commissioner Tim Keane said of the acquisition.

But for a long time this piece of property didn’t seem like it was going to be any kind of win for the people who lived nearby.

‘Had To Have Been a Grand Place’

Shirley Nichols, who has lived in her home in the southeast Atlanta neighborhood of South River Gardens for 45 years, first explored the woods near her home a few years after moving in, about 40 years ago.

She said she hadn’t thought much about the place, but one day she turned her car down the dirt road to follow a sign for Lake Charlotte.

Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve -- the lake in its name has been drained – is larger than Piedmont Park. Locals had long worried the deep forest would be turned into a landfill. (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)
Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve — the lake in its name has been drained – is larger than Piedmont Park. Locals had long worried the deep forest would be turned into a landfill. (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)

“I was by myself. I was really a little leery about going,” she said. “And all of a sudden I came to this big clearing, and there was a lake. There were probably four, five, six houses — really nice, big, beautiful houses.”

Or, they had been beautiful.

“When I saw them, they were all empty, dilapidated, rotting,” she said.

But still, she remembers thinking how lovely the scene was on the lake; it was quiet and green. The air felt light. She hadn’t expected to find a spot like that — and so close to her home.

She said she thought to herself, “What a waste.”

“I thought why would they just let this place go like this? It had to have been a grand place sometime,” she said.

The property had been a lakefront suburban retreat in the early- and mid-1900s, according to Atlanta author Hannah Palmer. She’s worked as a researcher for the Conservation Fund and is writing a book that includes a chapter about Lake Charlotte.

In 1977, the city of Atlanta bought the land and opened it up to the public as a nature preserve.

But the city struggled to keep it safe and clean, Palmer said.

Last year, the Conservation Fund bought the property from Waste Management. The nonprofit is now selling it to the city of Atlanta for the same price (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)
Last year, the Conservation Fund bought the property from Waste Management. The nonprofit is now selling it to the city of Atlanta for the same price (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)

In the 1980s, the lake got drained around the time of the Atlanta child murders. Atlanta sold the land to a developer, who then sold it to Waste Management.

The company owned another landfill nearby, which became a long-running problem for Nichols’ neighborhood.

“We didn’t even know it was over there for years,” Nichols, who’s the president of the South River Gardens Community Association, said. “Then we started smelling it.”

That landfill closed in 2004. But Nichols said she still had to worry about the Lake Charlotte property and if it would end up getting turned into a landfill or sold for another industrial use.

“It was a fight until a few months ago,” Nichols said.

Priority Area to Protect

The road Nichols drove down is now covered in leaves, with branches and vines occasionally blocking the path, but it’s still there. And the woods in the Lake Charlotte Nature Preserve are still deep and green and quiet, like when she first visited 40 years ago.

One day this summer, Stacy Funderburke, with the Atlanta office of the Conservation Fund, walked down that road, stopping to admire big old trees on the way.

“It actually feels like you’re in North Georgia, and you’re in the city of Atlanta. It’s pretty amazing,” he said.

With it becoming public land, it’ll be possible to study and learn more about the people who once lived there. (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)
With it becoming public land, it’ll be possible to study and learn more about the people who once lived there. (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)

Last year, the Conservation Fund bought this property from Waste Management. The nonprofit is now selling it to the city for the same price. Since the land never ended up getting developed, it ended up being a sort of “hidden” nature preserve all this time, said Palmer.

“The time has come though,” for it to be opened up again, she said.

Though the lake was drained, there are other traces of this place’s history: a dead end sign in the woods, a light pole covered in vines, old roller skates and a crumbling house.

This area had probably been farmed at some point. And with this becoming public land, it’ll be possible to study the archaeology here, too, to learn more about the native people who lived around here and used the soapstone found on the property for thousands of years.

“I believe it’ll be a crown jewel in the city and even in the region,” Funderburke said. “A forest that people will come from all over the city to visit and spend time in because it is such a unique place.”

The property is important environmentally, too, Keane said.

“We looked at every corner of the city and found that this is the most critical property to protect, feeling as though that would be impossible or outside of our reach,” he said. “And here it became possible and it happened.”

The city is using money that developers pay when they cut down trees to buy the land. Keane said this is the first time the tree recompense fund has been used to protect trees, instead of planting new ones.

Linking Parks

The property also fits into a bigger vision Keane and others have to create a network of parks and trails in southeast Atlanta.

That’s a vision Joel Slaton shares. He grew up in this part of town and started the found-art project at the nearby Doll’s Head Trail in DeKalb County’s Constitution Lakes Park, which is just across Moreland Avenue from Lake Charlotte.

Slaton played in the woods in the area as a kid, and he said he skipped high school to go to Lake Charlotte.

“I’m glad to see it’s opened up to a park. It’s really neat people can come through the woods that I came in as a child,” he said.

The property had been a lakefront suburban retreat in the early- and mid-1900s, according to Atlanta author Hannah Palmer. (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)
The property had been a lakefront suburban retreat in the early- and mid-1900s, according to Atlanta author Hannah Palmer. (Stacy Funderburke/The Conservation Fund)

Another piece of forest that could be confused for the North Georgia woods sits between Lake Charlotte and the city’s Southside Park. Bushwhacking through those woods, Slaton admired mossy boulders and a creek that tumbled down a tiny waterfall into a pool. He said he’d love to see that place added as a park with trails, too.

Nichols said her neighborhood needs parks. But more than anything, she’s relieved Lake Charlotte isn’t becoming another landfill.

I’m glad to see it’s opened up to a park. It’s really neat people can come through the woods that I came in as a child.

— Joel Slaton

“I think the people here are just happy to know that we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” she said. “We don’t have to fight about what’s going to be back there. What’s going to be out my back door.”

Atlanta’s Parks Department will manage the forest. It’s expected to begin opening to the public later this year.

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