River Town Lost

Nestled between the Alabama and Cahaba rivers just southwest of Selma, the bustling antebellum town once attracted genteel landholders, wealthy merchants and leading politicians. During its heyday, it served as a central shipping point in the state’s all-important cotton trade, connecting farmers of Alabama’s fertile interior to the port in Mobile.

Ultimately, however, the river access that had initially propelled the town into prosperity would prove to be its undoing, repeatedly beating back its reach for progress. Cahaba’s location on the waterfront, while a blessing to a shipping industry dependent on steam-powered boats, proved to be disastrously prone to flooding.

In 1825, just six years after Cahaba sprang out of the woods to become the state capital, a massive flood hurtled down the Alabama and Cahaba rivers, inundating the town. In her 1905 volume “Memories of Old Cahaba, ” Anna Gayle Fry recalls the legend that when the flood came, members of the state legislature used rowboats to reach the second-story halls of the capitol building.

The flood itself was bad enough, but its soggy aftereffects were worse. “When a portion of the Statehouse fell, ” Fry writes, “Cahaba was no longer deemed safe as the seat of government.” In 1826, the capital was moved to Tuscaloosa.

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What followed for Cahaba was a depressing period of decline. Many of the houses in town were abandoned; others were dismantled and shipped to Mobile. Slowly, the wilderness reclaimed the little city.

Fry offers a vivid account of this period: “Rare flowers bloomed in the lonely yards in neglected wild luxuriance, ” she writes. “Beautiful climbing roses waved mournfully to the breeze from decaying galleries, and the grass grew in the principal streets as though months had passed since foot had touched it.”

From Bust to Boom

The statuesque Crocheron Columns, still standing near the banks of the Cahaba, are the only above-ground remnants of the Crocheron mansion.  photo courtesy Beth Maynor Young

That might have been the end of the town, if it weren’t for the agricultural boom that swept across the region in the mid-1800s. Cotton was king, and farmers who lived in the southern half of the state needed to ship each year’s harvest down the Alabama or Tombigbee rivers to Mobile for export. As this market developed, Cahaba found its niche as a cotton clearinghouse.

Commerce revived the town; despite the temporary setback of an 1853 flood, Cahaba reached its peak from the 1840s until the early 1860s. Townsfolk enjoyed all the comforts that antebellum life could offer, and they prided themselves on Southern refinement.

Cahaba was not alone in its renaissance. The cotton network of the Black Belt fueled the economy of the entire state. By 1850, Alabama had surpassed Mississippi to become the No. 1 cotton grower in the nation. Moreover, writes Harriet Amos in her book “Cotton City, ” the commodity accounted for 99 percent of the total value of exports from Mobile. (Lumber provided the other 1 percent.)

This commercial success ground to a jarring halt with the onset of the Civil War. Regular trade routes were interrupted, demand for Southern cotton shriveled, and the emancipation of slaves left landholders with few hands to tend the fields.
Then, in 1865, just before the South’s surrender, yet another flood deluged the beleaguered town. The following year, in an act that would seal the town’s fate, Dallas County residents voted to move the county courthouse to Selma. By the 1870s, Cahaba was deserted once again.

The Fambro house is one of only two homes that remain standing at Cahaba today. photo courtesy Old Cahawba, Alabama Historical Commission

New Lifeline

For more than a century, it lay abandoned. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the old capital was prodded once again from its dormancy, this time by the Alabama Historical Commission. Interested in the archaeological value of the area, the commission began to buy up the land around Cahaba, intending to transform it into a park and provide a safeguard for its buried historical riches.

Despite the group’s enthusiasm, budget restraints posed a problem. The project languished until 2008, when longtime Cahaba devotee Dan Meador stepped in and formed the Cahaba Foundation. Meador’s fundraising group has worked to buy the remaining land on the approximately 1, 000-acre site. Today, the Historical Commission and the Cahaba Foundation labor together to revive the secrets of the old antebellum capital.

This September, The Cahaba Foundation unveils plans for a LEED-accredited park visitor center and will announce a $2 million capital campaign to buy up the rest of the privately owned land. To contribute: Cahaba Foundation, 719 Tremont St. Selma, AL 36701. (334) 874-8000; [email protected]

Catherine Dorrough

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