Old Cahawba – Alabama’s Capital Ghost Town
No town in Alabama exudes as much mystery as Old Cahawba. Known as “Alabama’s most famous ghost town,” the site illustrates the mystery of how a growing city, especially one that was the state’s capital, could vanish from existence. It’s a question people have studied for more than a century. The myriad ghost stories, historical research, and curiosity are among the reasons people visit Old Cahawba Archaeological Site in Dallas County. Here’s why you should, too.
When officials agreed the State of Alabama should be carved from the Mississippi Territory, the soon-to-be state was in need of a capital. A commission was formed and a site was chosen at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers. The future town was named Cahawba, also spelled Cahaba, and it became the state capital in 1819. But it would not hold the position long.
The land the town of Cahawba was built upon was swampy, and lying in a bend where two major rivers meet, was prone to flooding. An 1825 flood caused a portion of the statehouse to collapse, which set in motion a vote for a new capital site. The state Legislature voted to move it to Tuscaloosa.
The loss of designation as the capital hurt the town, but it remained the seat of Dallas County so citizens clung to their way of life. As cotton production became increasingly important in Alabama’s Black Belt, the town soon became a port, shipping thousands of bales of cotton on steamboats down the Alabama River to Mobile. This boom even brought a railroad to the town in 1859, but disaster once again loomed.
This disaster turned out to be the War Between the States. A blockade of Mobile ceased cotton shipments down the river, devastating Cahaba’s economy, and then the Confederate Army took the rail lines from the town for military use. The military then conscripted the town’s large cotton warehouse and turned it into a military prison known formally as Cahaba Military Prison, but known locally as Castle Morgan.
With the war’s end, and most of the citizens having already fled, a flood in 1865 demolished the town. The county seat was moved to nearby Selma in 1866 and the once-great capital of Cahawba slowly returned to nature. The town was officially unincorporated in 1989, but the Alabama Historical Commission purchased what was left of the town, and began many archeological digs and research projects which resulted in today’s Old Cahawba Archeological Site.
While there is a ton of history to absorb, and so many interesting things to do at Old Cahawba, I broke this down into a couple of favorites for Wil’s Must Do list:
- Visit the ruins of the few surviving buildings and imagine life in Old Cahawba.
- Walk down to where the Cahaba River meets the Alabama River.
- Throw a coin in the ruins of Perine Well and make a wish.
- Walk quietly and respectfully over the grounds of Castle Morgan.
- Take a copy of “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey” and read “Spectre in the Maze at Cahaba,” where the story takes place.
Old Cahawba Archeological Park is open daily from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
This was originally written for my friends at Our Valley Events.