Ask McGehee: What is the history of Mobile’s old Spanish Guard Tower?

The Old Spanish Guard Tower in Mobile, AL.

Above A view from above of the old Spanish Guard Tower, as seen in Harper’s Weekly in 1884. It was a prominent Mobile landmark. Image courtesy Harper’s Weekly.

In 1820, Congress authorized the sale and removal of Fort Charlotte in Mobile since it was no longer needed for defense. With the loss of the fort and its dungeons, Mobile was left without a jail or police headquarters. Several buildings were used as a jail until in 1829, a guard house with a jail and watch tower was constructed near the intersection of Conti and St. Emanuel streets.

A brick two-story building facing Conti Street held the city offices and the office of the mayor. Mobile would not have an official city hall until 1857. That building, which also contained the public markets, is now the History Museum of Mobile.

The largely wooden guard house of 1829 lasted until it went up in flames in the great fire of October 7, 1839. A new tower was constructed by 1841 and stood some 70 feet. At that height, it was far taller than the majority of structures in its vicinity and was an immediate landmark. Like its predecessor, it was well inside the southeast corner of Conti and St. Emanuel streets with entrances from both.

The walls of the main section of the tower were of tapering, white-washed stucco. In its massive base was what was commonly referred to as a dungeon. Each jail cell had a heavy grated door for entry and a small window. There was no heat and no plumbing. The floors were of stone, the walls were bare, and the dim lighting and poor ventilation were described as oppressive.

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At the top of the tapered walls was a four-faced clock. Originally, it had been purchased in England for a planned city hall, which was never constructed due to an economic crisis. At its lofty perch, the clock was visible to citizens throughout Downtown.

All is Well!

Above the clock was a wooden belfry, which held a bell. A watchman was constantly on vigil here keeping an eye out for the first sign of a fire. He would ring the bell a certain number of times to indicate which district was in need of the volunteer firemen. Otherwise, each night his booming voice could be heard at the top of each hour calling out, “All is well!”

Just why the guardhouse was termed “Spanish” is up for conjecture. Neither it nor its predecessor were built during Spanish rule, which ended in 1813. The term seems to have been thrown about in the late 19th century in Mobile to describe any odd old building, regardless of its date of construction. One writer has suggested that, owing to the seemingly medieval jail cells of the “dungeon,” it was assumed that the Guard Tower had to date from Spain’s control of the city.

This unusual and foreboding building lasted until 1895 when it was demolished for a new police station and jail with the bell retained for its tower. Today, a parking lot occupies much of the site.

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