I moved back to Alabama two weeks ago and I have been going down my list of places to visit. This week it was the old ghost town of Cahaba, Alabama. This is a really unique place to visit. It was the first state capitol of Alabama from 1820 to 1825 until it was moved to the second state capital of Tuscaloosa – more about this later. As an Auburn fan I don’t understand why it wasn’t moved to Auburn but I guess I am okay with that seeing how Auburn wasn’t incorporated until 1839. War Eagle anyways. Okay let’s go check out Cahawba and learn about the history there.
Let’s go to the beginning. About 4,000 years ago Native Americans lived in Cahawba. It was a flourishing settlement. The name “Cahawba” either was a name for a type of cane that grew in the river or simply “water above”. There is a theory that Hernado do Soto battled Native Americans here during a famous battle at the settlement of Mabila (not Mobile!) but historians have not reach any conclusion on this after doing archaeological digs with nothing.
Fast forward 280 years from the battle between de Soto and the Natives. Alabama has established the first permanent capital to Cahaba Alabama. This place was now a wilderness since the Natives had left, so they basically were going to be building a city out of nothing. Governor Bibb commissioned the city to be built in 1818. The first capital was almost Tuscaloosa but Bibb really wanted Cahawba to be the first capital. He worked with an influential group of Alabamians named the “Broad River Group” to donate federal land to th e state. During the second state assembly, he announced that this land had been donated to the state and was able to convince the assembly that the first capital should actually be in Cahawba rather than Tuscaloosa. The political move worked.
In 1819 the streets were laid, being modeled after Philadelphia. This was going to be a metropolis. Quickly the most influential Alabamians moved in and started building their city. There were banks, stores, grocers – everything you needed in life. The Encyclopedia Of Alabama reports that there were 1,000 people living in Cahawba in 1821, and only 600 in Montgomery!
With Governor Bibb’s death in 1820, the desire to keep Cahawab as the state capital has also died and the Tuscaloosa advocates were able to get what they wanted by passing a bill which made Tuscaloosa capital effective Feb 1, 1826. They were able to get this partially by blaming the poor health of the town on mosquitoes, and said the town was a horrible place to live due to constantly flooding. Cahaba had been built at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama rivers. In a 1908 book “Memories of Old Cahaba, Anna Fry writes:
“The town was now growing and continued to im-
prove rapidly until 1825, when the largest flood ever
known in the history of this country swept down the
Alabama and Cahaba Rivers and completely inun-
dated Cahaba. According to tradition, the Legislature
was in session when the flood came and the different
representatives had to be rowed in boats and landed in
the second story of the capitol, to reach the legislative
halls. Many of the private residences and public
buildings were injured by the overflow, and when a
portion of the Statehouse fell Cahaba was no longer
deemed safe as the seat of government, and at a meet-
ing of the next Legislature, in January, 1826, the
capital was removed to Tuscaloosa. Cahaba now be-
came almost abandoned.”
One would think the town would be dead after this. But with the Alabama hard-headed spirit, people continued to live here even after this upheaval. Because of the flourishing cotton trade, the town continued to survive the antebellum period. Things seemed like they were getting better and better when the railroad connected the town in 1858 which connected Marion to the town. Only a few years later the Civil War took place and the town of Cahaba had a large Confederate prison which was appropriated from a warehouse that was being built to store cotton. At one point, there were over 3,000 union soldiers in this place. Here we see all that remains of the prison named “Castle Morgan”. Although the conditions were probably very bad at the prison, the mortality rate was low at the prison relative to other places during the Civil War. Cahawba.com reports that the mortality rate at the prison was only 2% when the north’s rate was 12% and the south’s being 15.5%.
The Civil war unfortunately sealed the fate for Cahawba and the county voted in 1866 to move the county seat to Selma.
There is some really interesting African-American history to be found in the town. Cahawba.com reports that the population in 1870 was 70% of the town was black, up from 64% in 1860. After emancipation, blacks started to own several amounts of property in Cahawba. It is an interesting fact that the chicken business in Cahawba was controlled by blacks. Even though they were continued to be severely restricted in how they could live their daily lives. For example, no blacks were allowed to go out after the market bell rang at night. Two of the places left in Cahaba relevant to African American history are the old slave quarters for the Barker Home and the black cemetery.
One of the three original building left in Cahawba is a beautiful St. Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church. This building was actually moved in 1878 to Martin’s Station 15 miles down the road. In 2007, Auburn students that were a part of the Rural Project carefully took apart the old church and moved it back to its birthplace.. Today there are ghost tours of this place and you also apparently rent out the place for special events.
Today, the park is open daily 9am-5pm and the visitors center is open Thu. – Mon., 12pm – 5pm. When you get there, there is a place to park to get inside the visitor center. The entrance costs are a cheap $2.00 (cash) or $3.00 (debit card). If the visitors center is not open when you are there, there is a box where you can pay cash only. A map is provided to guide you throughout the town streets.
The non-profit Cahaba Foundation exist today to take care of the 3 original buildings that are left in the town. Consider donating to them.
Overall this is definitely a very cool place to visit filled with history and recreation. There are a whole bunch of trails and picnic tables so I would rate this as a great place to bring friends and family to. Because the town was built at the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama rivers, the edge on the town by the river is very beautiful. Go visit!