Old Cahawba State Archeological Park

Location: Selma, Alabama

Webpage: Alabama State Park

General Description: In the early 1800s, the tall grass prairies of central Alabama black belt was quickly becoming the cotton capital of the south. The rich black earth of the fire maintained prairie was becoming a magnet drawing settlers west now that the Indians had been forcibly removed to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears. Alabama soon became a state and Cahawba was approved to be the state capitol in the heart of the black belt at the confluence of the Cahawba and Alabama Rivers, in 1819. In fact, it was the site of a 16th century Mississippian Indian Village and the central mound of the village was to be used for the new capital building. A “temporary” courthouse was built near the mound while plans were finalized for the capital. However, before this structure could be built, the state capital moved to Tuscaloosa in 1826.   However, Cahawba continued to flourish as a county seat and grew into a very wealthy antebellum river town, at one time during the 1850s it was the wealthiest town in the south. The original site for the capital building became the site of cotton warehouses and most of the mound was removed for building material for the new railroad bed. During the Civil War, Cahawba continued to be an important commercial enterprise dependent upon cotton and slaves. Of the nearly 3000 citizens over 60% were slaves. Over 600 Union soldiers captured at Shiloh, were kept in a prison made out of one of the cotton warehouses and due to plentiful fresh water from the artesian wells they nearly all survived the war in spite of the very poor and crowded living conditions. Although most survived the war, many of them died in the tragic burning of the steamboat Sultana that was transporting them to New Orleans for release after the war. One of the notable features of living in Cahawba was the many free flowing artesian wells, of which over 30 have been located throughout the town. While most of the wellheads are now gone, there are still a few remaining including the fancy Face Well that has the likeness of a face clearly visible at the end of the pipe. The main street of the town was Vine Street with its many shops and even an early “strip mall” of multiple small shops in a single brick building. With the collapse of the cotton economy and slavery during the Reconstruction Years following the Civil War, Cahawba slowly became a ghost town. When the county seat was moved to Selma following the war, most of the white plantation owners moved away and the city continued to disappear. Along with fires and dismantling the buildings for construction material, there is today very little left of the town. There are only three original building left, including St Luke’s Episcopal Church which was built in 1854. You can still see the straight streets crisscrossing the town along with depressions left from the buildings, but there is very little left of the original town.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center is itself an old structure, although not a building from the Cahawba era. They have a few exhibits with artifacts in the Visitor Center, but the real attraction is the layout of the town. They have a few dirt roads along some of the main streets in the town, but most of the town is now overgrown with trees and vegetation.

VisitorCenter

2) They have a nice explorer’s guide and a number of interpretive signs placed at the important locations throughout the town. You can either choose to drive to the main locations or use a bicycle to get around.   While walking is an option, there are 5 miles of roads to see all of the town.

3) Due to a limited state budget, the Visitor Center is only open Thursday through Sunday, and we visited the town on Wednesday. Fortunately, they were doing paperwork in the office and were only too happy to open the Visitor Center and provide us with information about the town. They even loaned us a couple of bicycles for free to travel around the town!! Consequently we had the park nearly to ourselves except for another visitor and volunteers clearing and burning underbrush.

4) Our first stop was St. Luke’s Episcopal Church across the road which was built in 1854 and after being moved to another town in 1887, it was returned to Cahawba in 2006 by the Rural Studios. Although it was closed so we could only look at the outside, it was distinctive since it used all vertical boards for the siding.

StLuke

5) Out next stop was at the picnic area along the Alabama River with lunch carried in the baskets on the bikes. It is a very picnic area where you can still see the remnants of the ditch the Indians had dug outside their wooden palisades along three sides with the fourth side being the river back in the 16th century.

6) After lunch we walked through the original site of Capital Reserve where the capital building was to be constructed. Unfortunately, there is no remaining evidence of the Indian Mound upon which the capital building was to be built as it was removed to form the railroad bed in the 1850s. However, you can still see the outline of “Castle Morgan” which was the name given to the Confederate prison during the Civil War.   This was a converted cotton warehouse where the held over 600 Union prisoners, mostly captured at Shiloh.

CastleMorgan

7) The tour then continues north along Vine Street parallel to the river, which was the main commercial district of the town. Except for some old photographs and drawings, there is nothing left of the buildings, including the main artesian well in the middle of the street that was suppose to be quite ornate. At the northern end of Vine street are the Crocheron Columns which are the only remnants of the home of R.C. Crocheron that overlooked the confluence of the Cahawba and Alabama Rivers. The home was attached to an older 80 foot long brick store built in 1821, that housed a number of small stores making a “strip mall” that was common in Pennsylvania at the time. All that remains are the depressions of the basements which they were busy clearing and burning while we were there.

CrocheronColumns

8) The tour then continues west along Second North Street to Oak Street, where a little to the north are the remains of the slave quarters built around 1860. This is the only remnants of the plantation house that burned in 1935 of the Kirpatrick farm that reclaimed much of the northern end of town in a “modern” agricultural enterprise following the Civil War. You can still see many of the abandoned pecan trees that were one of these enterprises.

BarkerSlaveQuarters

9) A little further north on Oak Street is the Cahawba Burial Ground for the black slaves. While there are likely hundreds of burials in the cemetery, only a few have headstones and most are marked by just depressions in the ground. There is a nice brochure giving information about the graves that have numbered posts along the trail.

NegroCemetery

10) Traveling back south along Oak Street you come to the oldest original structure in the park, the Fambro/Auther House, built around 1840. It is actually still a private residence.

FambroArthurHouse

11) A short ride up First North Street brings the visitor to the Face Well built in 1952. It is one of the few remaining 30 artesian wells scattered throughout the city and has a distinctive human face at the end of the pipe coming out of the ground.

FaceWell

12) Further down Oak Street, at the south end of Cahawba is the location of the “New Cemetery”, from 1851. We did not visit this as it was another mile to the south end and we were getting tired of riding the bikes. Although the roads are fairly level, they are dirt and it had been over 20 years since either of us had ridden a bike.