Cahaba Lily on the Cahaba River

Day-tripping at Old Cahaba
Todd Keith

"And Cahaba! Cahaba! so brilliant and gay,
Is left to destruction, neglect and decay;

Her children are scattered like the sands of the sea,

And ruin now rests on our fair Galilee."

from Anna M. Gayle Frye’s Memories of Old Cahaba, 1908

Set beside the idyllic Cahaba River as it flows into the mighty Alabama River, the site has long been accustomed to human habitation, dating back to the days of the Mississippian Indian culture. When De Soto cut his way across Alabama in 1540, a large village existed where Alabama’s first state capital would rise in 1820. But in a space of six years, settlers nearly abandoned this wilderness capital. When the legislature moved the capital to Tuscaloosa in 1826, the early inhabitants followed. Though Cahawba rose again, a combination of horrendously bad luck and events beyond the town’s control doomed the place to eventual ruin. Today, only ruins remain of what could have been one of Alabama’s greatest cities.

The town never could seem to get things right.

Imagine the scene: President James Monroe gives the young state 1,620 acres of land to organize a city in the middle of nowhere. Nearby land sold for $1.25 an acre just days before, and within weeks, the same property goes for $70 an acre. People could buy land one day and sell it the next for profit. By 1822, unimproved lots in town go for as much as $5,000. In no time the place is hopping with activity as hotels, shops, and new businesses open. Cahawba is the only town in Alabama with two, yes two newspapers. Things are looking good— excellent, in fact.

In the early part of the century, steamboat excursions were popular day-trips to the ruins of Cahawba.

Then it all turns sour. A national economic panic hits Alabama sending many into bankruptcy. An outbreak of yellow fever strikes the town. Heavy rains lead to flooding. By comparison, Oedipus’ luck with his parents doesn’t look all that bad. Political opponents of Cahawba seized the opportunity to grossly exaggerate the extent of the flooding. Soon tall tales of legislators having to use rowboats to enter the second floor windows of the capital spread throughout the state as critics clambered for the capital’s removal. It works! The capital is moved to Tuscaloosa in 1826 and the boom town, in the space of weeks, nearly deserted.

Vine Street, once the center of a thriving commercial district, abandoned and crumbling at the turn of the century.

It must have looked funny—a solid brick two-story capital building costing the state some $10,000 standing in a deserted ex-capital landscape, the ex-city surrounded by log cabins and shacks. By the 1830’s, the thing had partially collapsed. There were probably more alligators than people in the city limits. Alabama was off to a rollicking-good start.

But then came king cotton to the rich Black Belt soil, and by the 1840’s and 1850’s Cahawba rose its downy white head again. Keelboats and cotton flats populated Alabama with their cotton loads. After all, it was still the county seat. By income, Dallas County became the wealthiest in Alabama and ranked among the top five richest counties nationwide-. Buoyed by cotton money, people returned, built grand homes, hotels, factories, even a female academy. A new railroad link built in 1858 promised more commerce. By the eve of the Civil War, the population exceeded 3,000. Then came war. The whole economy of the South sputtered and collapsed. The Confederate government removed the iron rails to extend a more important railway, and the town became a prison camp housing as many as 3,000 captured Union soldiers when Andersonville Prison in Georgia overflowed.

One famous event during this time was the arrival of Cahawba’s first apparition, the will-o-the-wisp known as the "Pegues Ghost." In 1862, on the required moonlit night, a young couple were walking behind Colonel C. C. Pegues’ home, ambling about the maze of cedars when a glowing ball of white light suddenly appeared before them. Darting from side to side a few feet above the path, the apparition would come close enough to almost touch, then disappear in the undergrowth only to reappear floating beside them. When the gentleman tried to touch the object, it disappeared—much like the town itself was soon fated to vanish.

When Dallas County moved the county seat to Selma right after the war, the town was finished. By 1870, the population hovered around 300, most of them former slaves from nearby plantations. In fact, Cahawba’s greatest claim to fame at this time was the nickname it earned as the "Mecca of the Radical Republican Party" since the deserted courthouse was now a rallying place for freedmen trying to gain political power during the Reconstruction.

By the turn of the century, most citizens removed their homes to Selma or other towns, and the few remaining buildings had fallen into ruin or had been dismantled and sold for scraps. Nature began to transform Old Cahawba into what it was before 1819. When the site was finally unincorporated in 1989, it was more a fishing and hunting camp that "town." Quiet streets, graveyards, a few crumbling columns from a mansion, fallen-in brick cellars, and artesian wells still gushing forth water are the remnants of a capital past.

Seeing Old Cahawba Today

Traveling to Old Cahawba from Birmingham, the first thing you need to look for when you reach historic Selma is the Crossroads. It’s not a honkey tonk, and it’s not where you sell your soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar like Ralph Macchio. Instead, the Crossroads, at 2107 Broad Street (Highway 22), is Selma’s semi-official visitor information center run by George "Cap" Swift and his wife Elizabeth. Open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. 365 days a year, the Swift’s welcome center is the place to start any day trip to Cahawba or Selma for that matter. Load up on brochures, free cigar samples, and the gregarious expertise and congeniality of Mr. Swift, self-appointed promotional guru of the city of Selma. He’s there because he loves his town and the visitors he greets. But watch out: the first time I met the man, he tried to convince me to move to Selma, and after he finished his spiel of the town’s attributes, I was almost ready to look for accommodations.

If you don’t have the time to spend the whole day gawking at some of Selma’s 1,200 beautiful antebellum mansions or historic structures, some of which were dismantled in Cahawba and then carried by wagon or shipped up the Alabama River brick by brick and restored, take State Highway 22 West out of town. On the way to Cahawba, the road passes Live Oak Cemetery, a sprawling elegant graveyard with century-old magnolias and oaks draped in Spanish moss. Purchased by the Township of Selma in 1829, it would be a shame to pass by without a closer look.

Gradually Highway 22 takes a rural turn. When you reach County Road 9 some ten miles out of town, the landscape has given way completely to fields and woodlands. As you near Cahawba, Spanish moss draping the aged oaks line the highway, and a sense of the remote and fallen grandeur in old beat-up road seems to intimate that once, this place was important. On the right, the Old Capital Cemetery and the Civil War Memorials are the first indication of this site’s buried history. Driving on, the welcome center, rebuilt to match the John Tyler Morgan house originally built on that site in the early 1850’s, is the place to begin any visit. If the name Morgan sounds familiar it's because the Confederate general, Senator, and "Father of the Panama Canal."

The park rangers are some of the most helpful you will encounter. After heaping maps and brochures upon you, be sure to chat them up for the bits and pieces of information they have accumulated over the years. On my first visit more than a year ago, Park ranger Tommy Coleman was so enthusiastic at the park’s looming acquisition of the Kirkpatrick family’s slave quarters, he hopped in his truck and led me to the site, explaining how it was used as a laundry and servant’s quarters after the Civil War. Set next to massive pecan grove slowly rotting away, the two-story building is remarkable for the fact that it is built of bricks (the Kirkpatrick family owned one of the town’s brickyards) and has columns, making it a modest facsimile of the Kirkpatrick’s mansion. Now that the property belongs to the park, Coleman is elated about the possibilities. "We may furnish a couple of rooms and open them to the public," he says, "perhaps furnishing them as they would have been before the war or maybe furnishing them as they were when the place was used as a laundry." He further explained that the park recently went from owning 42 acres to 204 acres. "Just one of those little miracles," Coleman says.

The coup of the park’s recent expansion may just be the "Negro Burial Ground," located across the road beyond another pecan grove from the slave quarters. Created around 1819, residents used the cemetery as recently as the 1950’s when two brothers, Andrew and Sam Arthur, World War I veterans, were buried there. Set in what is now wooded expanse between fields, the cemetery contains many headstones of people born into slavery. Walking the winding path through the trees, a path that more than likely crosses several unmarked graves, a thick bed of leaves cover numerous depressions where the graves collapse over the years. Here and there, small headstones dot the grounds, some engravings completely worn off. A quiet air of seclusion and grace permeates the graveyard. Before this year, public access to the cemetery was limited even for the descendants. But now, the grounds are open to all.

"There are a whole lot of bodies out there, hundreds even," explains Linda Derry, Park Manager and Site Archeologist. "I was surprised slaves had the money to purchase the stones or that their owners paid for them. I didn’t expect it, but what we are finding out is that many slaves had some money in their pocket and could travel about hiring themselves out for work. While this certainly isn’t to suggest slavery wasn’t a horrible thing, it may not have been the stereotype we carry around."

In 1860, the majority, 63% of Cahawba’s antebellum population was black. A few residents were freed, but on the whole, conditions were, of course, severe: even free blacks could not live in town without a white guardian. And no blacks were allowed out at night after the market bell had rung. At the same time, many learned skills enabling them to earn money on the side to spend as they wished. Some could even occasionally carry guns. A curious side note, blacks entirely controlled Cahawba’s poultry business. After the war, many black citizens from Cahawba played prominent roles fighting for hard-won political freedoms. Jordan Hatcher, Cahawba’s postmaster, was appointed to the Constitutional Convention and advocated a fair and moderate document. Tom Walker, a former slave rumored to be the son of a prominent white merchant in town, was one of Alabama’s first state legislators. A highly successful lawyer in the District of Columbia, Walker was known for his philanthropy and became a trustee of Howard University.

On the opposite side of the park, the "New" Cemetery stands under huge magnolia and pine trees. Created in 1851, surviving time and vandals, many elaborately carved stones of antebellum Cahawba’s prominent families cover the grounds. Italian, Prussian, and English emigrants mingle with the "native" families like the Crocherons and Perines from New York. Like the "Negro Burial Ground," a free self-guided walking tour map is available to the "New" Cemetery which relates anecdotes and brief histories of the families buried there. The Curtis family plot, holding William Curtis’ sons-in-law Joseph Babcock, Dr. Ulmer, and Reverend Cotten, contains the following sad tale: "When Babcock suffered a stroke, Rev. Cotten and Doctor Ulmer rushed to his side. Ulmer bled him, caused him to vomit, gave him an enema, and administered electric shock. The patient died shortly after the treatment." Such prompt and thorough treatment almost makes you thankful for HMOs and the referral process from lethargic primary care physicians.

Cahawba Federal Prison,
a.k.a. "Castle Morgan"

If there are ghosts at Cahawba, the many who suffered in Castle Morgan, the town's Civil War prison, may have something to do with it.

When the war came to Cahawba, an unfinished cotton warehouse standing near the soon-to-be dismantled Cahawba-Marion railroad looked to good to waste, and by 1863, the Confederate government opened Cahawba Federal Prison.

Within months, the place held 660 men in a 15,000 square foot building. Their water source was a ditch running from an artesian well that drained through the streets of town. One fireplace, no bedding and 432 bunks were just some of the hardships the Union soldiers faced. It soon became worse. When Andersonville Prison filled in Georgia, Cahawba overflowed with some 3,000 men awaiting transport to the infamous prison. By this time "Castle Morgan" as Cahawba Prison was called-presumably named after Confederate calvary general John Hunt Morgan who was the leader of a daring escape from a Union Prison in Ohio-contained a population rivaling, and perhaps exceeding the town itself.

Confederate and Federal records show that, as dire as conditions may have been at Castle Morgan, the death rate of 5% (142 to 147 men) remains far less than the South's prison death rate of 15.5% or that of the North's 12%. Nevertheless, for the 5,000 inmates interred at Castle Morgan, the confinement must have been a nightmare.

A few of Cahawba’s original streets remain, dusty remains of the glory days. Laid out in a grid pattern modeled after Philadelphia, most have reverted to pine forest. On Mulberry Street stands the crumbling brick ruins of the "Colored Methodist Episcopal Church" built in 1850. Turning onto nearby Capital Street, the road passes close to the site where the old capital and county courthouse stood. Standing by the Alabama River’s bank, you can still trace the brick foundations of the warehouse that became "Castle Morgan," the Civil War prison that eventually housed as many Union soldiers as the prewar- population of the town—only the prisoners lived in a 15,000 square foot enclosure.

Looking out across the Alabama from the slight promontory that was Arch Street, you can see the muddy Cahaba River emptying into the larger river, a long diagonal muddy demarcation cutting into the Alabama until the silt and water of the two meld. Although the greatest floods occurred this century, probably from deforestation of the surrounding areas along the Alabama and Cahawba, you can easily imagine what it must have been like living on what amounts to a jutting peninsula bound by two imposing rivers. Ferries crossed them. The famous freed slave and bridge builder Horace King even constructed a bridge across the Cahawba in 1854. Still, in times of heavy rain, Cahawba’s location must have felt precarious at best to its inhabitants.

Cahawba’s most recognizable landmark is the Crocheron Columns which formed the side porch and balcony of the Crocheron family mansion built in 1843. For generations, they have been the focal point of day-trippers or longer excursions from surrounding towns, some of which would travel by steamboat from Selma or Montgomery for a look at the town’s faded glory.

Alabama’s first Governor and vocal proponent of Cahawba, William Wyatt Bibb, said in a note to the state assembly in 1818 that "the town of Cahawba promises to vie with the largest inland towns in the country." It might have. But when he fell from a horse two years later, Cahawba lost its greatest ally in Bibb. As a town, Cahawba was born with bad luck.

The Old Cahawba Festival

Set for Saturday, May 10, the eighteenth annual Old Cahawba Festival draws in people from all over the state and beyond, attracting over 100 vendors of arts, crafts, and antiques. Historic trails, children's games, rides, and story telling are just a part of the festivities. Selma native and renown storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, (the "Ghost Lady" her nom de plume) often attends the festival, sharing a story or two. Last year around 6,000 made the trip, swelling the ex-town's population to a number greater even than its heyday in the 1850's.

"It's a real family day, a huge family picnic with three-legged races, music, dancing, and costumes," says Linda Derry, Park Manager and Site Archeologist for Cahawba. "It's like a comfortable country day similar to market day when people would come in from the outlying plantations. The town comes to life again, like something out of Brigadoon." Unfortunately, Sean Connery won't be able to make it this year.

Things are quiet in Cahawba today. Old-fashioned roses and bulbs planted by the town’s first settlers still bloom forth in spring, providing a canopy of life on an otherwise dead town. Old before its time, the first capital of Alabama rose to quick prominence, fell and rose again before finally giving up and letting coyotes, cougars, fox squirrels and alligators—today’s inhabitants—rule the roost. Like the large Indian village Cahawba built upon, perhaps in the future a new town from a different culture will again rise over the ruins of an older civilization at the site. Until then, ghost will wander among the old chimneys and ornamental well heads. home