An Eastern Ghost Town
CAHAWBA, Dallas Co., ALABAMA
Eastern ghost towns with tangible remains are scarce, most with still-standing buildings being owned either privately, by a government agency of one type or another, or owned and operated by some type of organization. As a result, ones that remain are true gems. Cahawba is one of those gems and is lovingly watched over by the Alabama Historical Commission. The town site located at the end of Cahaba Road, at the west bank of the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers, 10 miles east of Orrville, eight AIR miles southwest of Selma, 45 AIR miles due west of Montgomery.
Before we get started, let me explain that there are two VALID spellings for this old town. The United States Geological Society, Board on Geographic Names, Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) online database spells it CAHABA. That was indicated on their “Decision Card” dated November 18, 1920. However, the folks at Cahawba prefer the historical spelling of CAHAWBA, as it is presented in W. Stuart Harris’ authoritative 1982 work, “Alabama Place Names.” As a result I will defer to their preferences.
When Alabama was established as a state in 1819, the search for an ideal location to establish a capital city lead to the flatlands along the west side of the confluence of the Cahaba and Alabama rivers. The centerpiece of the new city was the 43’ x 58’, brick, two story capitol building, which opened in time for the legislature to meet in November 1820. It was built by brothers David and Nicholas Crocheron, who in 1822, also built an eight-store, two-story brick “block” known as Crocheron’s Row. 1820 also saw a bank, churches, two ferries, hotels, eight lawyers, two newspapers, several physicians, a school, several stores, at least one tavern and a theater. Cahawba also served as the Dallas County seat and in 1821 had a population of 1000. As the town continued to build, yellow fever swept through in the summer of 1821 and 1822. A flood in April of 1825 nearly washed it away and is said to have partially collapsed the statehouse.
Realizing that the site was susceptible to flooding, and under the original agreement of the location being temporary, the state legislature voted to move the capital. On December 13, 1825, by a margin of one vote, a bill was passed to relocate the capital to Tuscaloosa in February 1826. Despite the flood and the loss of the state capital, and a population slump to about 300, the town's citizens began to rebuild the city. Many felt it was filled with a promising future as a major river port on the Alabama, but in 1833 another flood ravaged Cahawba, destroying the former statehouse. Again the citizens bounced back and rebuilt better than ever. Through the 1840s, Cahawba rebuilt itself and by 1850, some 3000 people lived there. A Methodist-Episcopal Church was built in 1848, and remained active until 1954. Sometime in the 1850s, during the slow building boom period leading up to the arrival of the Marion-Cahawba Railroad, the town name changed from CAHAWBA to CAHABA. Massive mansions owned by extremely wealthy families sported the names of Crocheron (built in 1843), Kirkpatrick (burned in 1935) and Perine (the home was a converted cotton factory). In 1856, Dr. Saltmarsh built Saltmarsh Hall, a huge two-story social building . A women’s academy was also established. By 1860, the census records that 64% of the people living in Cahaba were African-American, yet all of the businesses and the cotton plantations were white-owned.
The city still served as the county seat and as a major rail/river cotton shipping center, the future seemed very bright indeed. Dallas County was the wealthiest in the state, supported in a large part by Cahaba. By 1860 the population was estimated to range from 3000 to 6000 and continued growth was in the air. One of the local cotton growers purchased a couple of lots on a bluff along the railroad and started construction of a 15,000 square foot cotton warehouse that overlooked the town.
Then the Civil War happened.
The warehouse was partially completed when the Confederate government appropriated the rail line, yanked the tracks and equipment to be used on another railroad that was much more strategically needed. The unfinished warehouse was also obtained, and in June 1863 it was turned into the Cahaba Federal Prison and by the end of the year held nearly 700 Union prisoners of war. Known locally as Castle Morgan (& nicknamed for Confederate General John Hunt Morgan), the facility was crowded and unsanitary. Yet shortly after the famed Andersonville Prison in Georgia was filled with thousands of POWs, Castle Morgan received thousands more, until some 3000 or so Union POWs were shoehorned into the facility. Bell’s Tavern and an adjacent cabin were also requisitioned, and used as the facility’s hospital.
As the war raged on, by 1864 Cahaba was on a downward spiral. On April 2, 1865, Union troops swooped into nearby Selma, turning that industrial city into a smoking cinder. The few remaining citizens of Cahaba thinking they were next were said to have buried their wealth, shuttered their windows and waited for the human storm to approach. However, Union troops headed east towards Montgomery.
That was it.
The citizens packed up and left, abandoning the town. In 1866, the county seat was transferred to Selma and Cahaba was quickly turned a memory as its few remaining stores and businesses shut down and moved out. The copper dome over the capitol was hauled by six teams of oxen some 45 miles to Lowndesboro where it was put on the top of St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. That dome is the only tangible remains of the former capitol building.
After Cahaba was abandoned, hundreds of former slaves arrived to farm the rich dark-soil bottomlands. Where the booming city once stood, farmers did their thing in a ghost town. In 1870 the population was down to around 300, most of which were the former slaves. By 1900 even they were gone, and the abandoned ruins of Cahaba were being torn down for their bricks and other usable building materials or were being reclaimed by Mother Nature. In the 1930s what little remained was a popular fishing camp. In 1943, the site was overlooked by the newly formed Cahaba Historical Commission, but little happened and the remaining structures continued to deteriorate either through vandalism or via nature. In 1973, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1975, the Alabama Historical Commission officially took over the site and preservation efforts began. Even though the abandoned ghost town was nearly forgotten, it remained an incorporated city. That oversight was remedied in 1989, when Cahaba was officially disincorporated.
Today the pride has returned, along with the deleted “W” in the name. Cahawba is a rubbled site - a state-owned Archeological Interpretive Park. Remains include: the brick columns of the Crocheron mansion, ruins of the 1848 Methodist-Episcopal Church, foundations, collapsed cellars, wells, three cemeteries (Cahawba’s Burial Ground, “New” Cemetery [1848-1900], Old Capital Cemetery) and a scattering of miscellaneous buildings, including the Kirk-View Mansion slave quarters, the Barker slave quarters, an old schoolhouse, several unmarked homes and the ca. 1841 Fambro House, mark the site. Another of the buildings on site is the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which had been relocated elsewhere, but has been brought back to Cahawba, and is awaiting restoration by the Cahawba Advisory Committee. Most of the important building sites are marked by historical markers.
This is an important location and well worth a visit.
A listing of the various sessions of the state legislature that convened in Cahawba include:
· 1819 October 25 - December 17 Huntsville
· 1820 November 6 - December 21 Cahawba
· 1821 June 4-18 Cahawba Special called session
· 1821 November 5 - December 19 Cahawba
· 1822-23 November 18 - January 1 Cahawba
· 1823 November 17 - December 31 Cahawba
· 1824 November 15 - December 25 Cahawba
· 1825-26 November 21 - January 14 Cahawba
· 1826-27 November 20 - January 13 Tuscaloosa
This is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.
This historic site also has its own website at: Old Cahawba.com
This vignette has been completely updated from the original GTOM posting in February 2005 and was reposted as our Ghost Town of the Month for August 2015.
· SW¼ Sec 32, T16N, R10E, St. Stephens Meridian
· Latitude: 32.3168056 / 32° 19’ 01” N
· Longitude: -87.1013793 / 87° 06’ 05” W
Also visit: Ghost Town USA’s
Ghost Towns of ALABAMA
A few LINKS to outside webpages:
FIRST POSTED: February 03, 2005
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