Alabama's Moving Capital: Cahawba

Aug 16, 2018

St. Luke's Episcopal Church at Old Cahawba Archeological Park
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

               

This year we’re studying at all of Alabama’s Capitals. We have already looked at the territorial capital of St. Stephens and the controversial role Huntsville plays in the story. This time we're looking at Alabama’s first official state capital…one that was built out of the wilderness…

     Its quiet and peaceful at this remote location in south central Alabama on the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers. But at one time, this was the bustling capital city of the newly formed state of Alabama. 

                            “Its interesting, because Cahawba, unlike any of the other state capitals  

Meeting of the Cahaba and Alabama Rivers
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

anyway, was literally carved out of the wilderness overnight.” 

            That’s Linda Derry. She is the site director at the Old Cahawba Archeological Park. She says Cahawba was chosen as the first “permanent” state capital for Alabama in 1818 before a city was even built. Derry says governor William Wyatt Bibb used this to the state’s advantage…

            “He got this land, free of charge from the federal government, was given to the new state of Alabama on which to build their capital city. He designed it, he surveyed it, he auctioned it off and all the money went in to create Alabama’s state treasury. So really, the state of Alabama owes Cahawba a big debt because it financed our government.” 

     Scotty Kirkland is with the Alabama department of History and Archives. He says Governor Bibb may have had something with building the city from the ground up…

“I think there is also some utility in building a capital from the ground up and I think Bibb has great interest in that. We know from the documents that he is involved in it, he wants a town that is sort of patterned on Philadelphia.”

            Cahawba remained the capital for only six years before it was moved to Tuscaloosa.   Many people believe it was moved because of severe flooding in 1825, but Derry says that just isn’t true…

            “1825 was a drought year, there was some high water, but the town was never inundated. Those stories were blown out of proportion by the press, in the newspapers, editors of the newspapers of the Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Huntsville newspapers. And of course we know why they did that, its because they were competing for the state capital.” 

                Jim Lewis is the author of the book “Lost Capitals of Alabama” and he backs up Derry’s thoughts… 

Lost Capitals of Alabama By: James Lewis

                “There are some tales of people rowing in boats to the second floor windows to save people. Its just simply not true. This type of story was perpetuated by some local newspapers.”

                The press campaign seemed to work. A vote was taken in 1825 and the decision was made to move the capital north and west to Tuscaloosa.

                However, Cahawba continued to thrive for about forty more years. Kirkland says the capital was what brought people there to begin with…

     “The business of Cahawba becomes the business of government. You see hotels, and restaurants and different things the pop up to cater to, not just the legislature when its in session, but also to the people who will invariably begin to show up.”

Columns remain from a home at Cahawba
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

The Civil War was an interesting time for the town. It served as a meeting ground for Union General James Wilson and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest before the battle of Selma. 

     The town was highly invested in the cotton and slave trade and in 1860 had the fourth highest per capita wealth in the whole United States. That all changed during reconstruction, and people started to leave. The trend continued and now, what is known as old Cahawba is a ghost town.

                “I mean the arch of the boom and bust of Cahawba is one of the most fascinating stories in early Alabama history.”

                After the war, reconstruction took a heavy toll on Cahawba. Derry says there was another vote that was essentially the death knell for the city… 

Site of former Civil War prison "Castle Morgan" in Cahawba
Credit Stan Ingold / Alabama Public Radio

                “In 1866 they had a vote, the courthouse moved to Selma and that is when the white flight started. But the town struggled on as a freedman’s village for as long as reconstruction was here and the federal presence was here. Then that died shortly…1880.”

                Cahawba still exists today as a historical site and archaeological park drawing around twenty-five thousand visitors a year. In our next story, we’ll visit the fourth of Alabama’s capitals, which is also home of the University of Alabama.